R&d center designs products for American tastes
Once limited to styling, Honda's Ohio tech center develops entire vehicles specifically for North America
But Honda eventually needed a center to create vehicles for American tastes. So the Ohio Center, part of the Honda R&D Americas Inc., slowly evolved into a full-fledged product development operation. The center created such North American vehicles as the Acura MDX and Honda Pilot crossovers and the Honda Ridgeline pickup truck.
"There's no way that Japan could have made an Acura MDX or a Pilot," said Frank Paluch, vice president of the Ohio Center's automobile design division. "They can't contemplate how big a vehicle is and why anybody would need eight-person seating and 10 cupholders. They just can't fathom that or even the need for 4wd or towing or off-road capability."
The Ohio Center, in Raymond, and the Los Angeles Center are the two U.S. Honda operations with complete product development capabilities, Paluch said.
Significance: The center emphasized styling at first. But as the U.S. became Honda's biggest market, the center developed entire vehicles for U.S. tastes.
The centers grew methodically, sending new hires to Japan for two-year training stints or longer stops at Honda's main r&d operations.
Paluch joined the Ohio Center, near Honda's assembly plants in Marysville and East Liberty, Ohio, in 1992, when the center was young and focused primarily on vehicle styling and market research.
The shift from an emphasis on styling to product development began with the development of derivative models, such as the wagon version of the Honda Accord in 1991 and the coupe version of the Civic in 1993.
"We kind of matured through that manner," Paluch said. Engineers were sent to Japan for in-depth training in chassis, body, electrical, interior and other areas, he said.
As the new hires returned to the Ohio Center, the operation's collective expertise grew. The center took on more challenging development work, such as the first-generation Acura CL 2.2 coupe. The CL was the first new vehicle developed by Honda in the United States and the first to be led by an American engineer.
"That was the first major departure from just taking something from Japan and making it into a variation," Paluch said. "Of course, the platform was still the Accord, but we made a brand-new product."
Then Honda decided to get into light trucks, an area in which Japan had little experience, he said.
"That was the big right angle where we broke free from the mother ship, broke free from their orbit, because we were no longer using their platforms," Paluch said.
A 2-way street
Today, Honda R&D in North America has gone full circle. It used to be a one-way exchange, with U.S. engineers sent to Japan for product development training. Now Honda sends engineers from Germany, the United Kingdom and other countries to the Ohio and Los Angeles centers to learn about light-truck development from the Americans, Paluch said.
"They are learning the ropes from us — which is kind of interesting, as we've become the teachers," he said.
As Honda R&D's product development skills have matured, so has its research into new technologies created by North American suppliers. The Ohio Center researched both BorgWarner's "superhandling" awd system and Delphi Corp.'s Active Damper System for suspensions — new technologies that Honda ultimately used on the MDX, Paluch said.
Paluch expects Honda R&D to take on a bigger responsibility in the company's global research during the next 10 years.
Said Paluch: "We've come light years from the early days when I joined."