Big challenge for Ford's quality guy

Bennie Fowler takes on 6 crucial vehicle launches

Bennie Fowler: Confident of success with Ford's upcoming launches of six new or revised vehciles Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
DETROIT — In November 2006, Ford Motor Co. quality chief Bennie Fowler and two fellow executives left a meeting three hours before they were to give the OK to ship several thousand Ford Edges to dealers.

The 2007 Edge was a brand-new crossover, Ford's most significant new vehicle of that year, and dealers were eagerly anticipating it. But then came a call: Someone driving the Edge in a customer evaluation fleet reported a problem.

Fowler and the other executives, manufacturing chief Joe Hinrichs and engineering Vice President Paul Mascarenas, regrouped with the Edge launch team. Remembering several botched launches early this decade, they decided to tell their bosses the vehicle wasn't ready to ship.

The response from Ford product chief Derrick Kuzak and Americas President Mark Fields was a departure from past regimes. The pair said, "We're going to hold, and we're going to do what's necessary to make it right," recalls Fowler, who became Ford's group vice president of global quality on Tuesday, April 1.

Now, with that kind of backing and greatly increased use of digital simulations, Fowler says he is confident in facing perhaps the biggest test of his career. Ford needs to launch six new or substantially revamped vehicles, including the crown jewel F-150 pickup, in 2008 without quality hiccups (see box at right). The 51-year-old longtime manufacturing executive calls it Ford's biggest launch year in the past five.

Launch lineup
Ford will launch 6 new or revised vehicles this year, followed by 2 more in early 2009.
May: Lincoln MKS sedan Ford Flex crossover
July: Ford F-150 pickup
December: Ford Fusion sedan Mercury Milan sedan Lincoln MKZ sedan
Early 2009: Ford Mustang coupe Ford Taurus sedan

Overcoming past problems

Much is riding on the 2008 launches. Strong sales of the new vehicles, along with Ford's ability to achieve its goal to cut $5 billion from 2005 cost levels by the end of this year, will largely determine whether the automaker makes a profit in 2009. That's a key goal in Ford's turnaround plan.

This year's manufacturing launches are the new 2009 Ford Flex and Lincoln MKS this spring, the re-engineered and restyled 2009 F-150 this summer and the reskinned 2010 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ at the end of the year. Launches of new versions of the Ford Mustang and Taurus follow early in 2009.

Ford goes into this year's launch cycle with a third fewer salaried workers than it had earlier this decade. Even with the bigger staff, launch problems and quality glitches spiked with past introductions, such as the 2001 Escape crossover and the notoriously problematic 2000 Focus small car.

This time around, Fowler and other Ford executives are relying on a combination of renewed discipline, new digital planning tools and weekly reviews with CEO Alan Mulally to get the launches right. A growing record of quality improvement from notable third parties such as J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports indicates that Ford is on the right track.

"They've been making incremental improvements in their reliability year after year," said David Champion, senior director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports.

Champion praised Ford's 2006 decision to hold off on shipping the Edge: "That was a very wise idea (so Ford wouldn't) live through another Focus and Escape fiasco."

Recently launched vehicles such as the 2007 Edge and the 2006 Fusion have shown "excellent reliability right out of the box," he said.

Consumer Reports now recommends 64 percent of Ford vehicles tested, up from 54 percent last year. And 93 percent of Ford's models had average or better reliability in the publication's latest survey, up from 63 percent in 2007.

If Ford can maintain that performance with this year's launches and broaden its reliability marks across the breadth of its product lineup, Champion said, the company has a chance in a few years of winning Consumer Reports' much-coveted recommended ratings even for unproven new vehicles.

Improved quality may become Ford's biggest advantage in the showroom, said John Wolkonowicz, a Global Insight product analyst.

"They will ensure these products will not be introduced until their time, and they will have the same high quality that other Ford products are now displaying," Wolkonowicz said of the 2008 launches. "Quality is Ford's ace in the hole right now."

Virtual planning

The high marks garnered by the original Fusion and its Mercury and Lincoln sibling sedans have convinced Ford executives that digital planning tools will keep future launches on track.

Beginning with the Fusion, more than 45 models have gone through what Ford calls its virtual manufacturing process. Using computerized simulations, Ford develops the manufacturing and assembly process for each new vehicle well before engineers must complete parts designs and assembly line layouts.

Ford benchmarked affiliate Mazda and also exchanges information on virtual manufacturing with other automakers, such as Toyota. The virtual tools save time and help eliminate costly rework, better positioning vehicle launches to stay on schedule and on budget, Ford executives say.

The gains emphasize the importance of preparation and training, a virtue that the 6-foot-4-inch Fowler says he learned as a college athlete and youth sports coach.

"That's one element of how I'm pretty comfortable that we're going to launch pretty well — because we've seen the outputs of this, know a lot of the issues and have resolved them," he said.

Since the Fusion, Ford has reduced manufacturing feasibility issues — the discovery during prototype builds that the vehicle can't be manufactured as designed — by up to 90 percent, said Bruce Hettle, Ford's director of vehicle operations manufacturing engineering.

This year's launches mark the first time that Ford has used the virtual tools throughout the entire vehicle planning process. The use of those tools has risen steadily since starting with about 25 percent coverage on the Fusion, which debuted in 2005.

The tools helped Ford catch a problem early on in the 2009 F-150. Assembly simulation revealed that the truck's transmission would bump into its steering gear during installation. Ford changed the assembly order to put the transmission in ahead of the steering gear. In the past, that problem may not have been discovered until physical pilot builds.

Despite Ford's more disciplined process, Fowler will remain on guard as this year's launches get closer to Job 1. Looking ahead is typical for Fowler, who once left a job at General Motors to return to school after determining his career wasn't progressing the way he wanted.

"Any time you're launching, I sleep with one eye opened and one eye closed," Fowler said. "We sweat the details every day." 

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com

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