DETROIT - Ford Motor Co. has issued suppliers a call to arms to make vehicles lighter.
Ford and 22 top parts makers met for four days last week. They evaluated 250 ideas, submitted at Ford's request, that could chop pounds from Ford cars and trucks.
The campaign comes as Ford tackles practical and political issues tied to the weight of its vehicles. Like General Motors and Chrysler Corp., Ford is struggling to comply with federal fuel economy laws.
Lighter vehicles use less fuel and therefore cut tailpipe emissions, including the carbon dioxide gases that may contribute to global warming.
The effort is part of a broader green push at Ford. 'The environment is not only an important issue but an escalating one,' Richard Parry-Jones, Ford group vice president of product development, told suppliers at the opening of last week's workshop, held in Dearborn, Mich.
'The rate at which the public worldwide and the media are raising their environmental conscience is increasing considerably,' Parry-Jones said. 'It would be very foolish to ignore these trends and put our heads in the sand and wait for regulators to tell us what to do.'
Ford is pushing to implement 30 percent of the 250 weight-reduction ideas quickly. Those changes are expected to be booked into specific vehicle programs by the end of 1999 and will appear in vehicles on the road within the next three years, said Tom Sweder, Ford weight engineering manager.
Some changes could be implemented as early as 1999, he said.
An estimated 40 percent of the ideas are likely to need longer-term technology development or more study before they are used, Sweder said. The remaining 30 percent may not be feasible or may not fit Ford's needs, he said.
NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL
Among the possible answers: new applications for magnesium and aluminum and the further development of lightweight steel.
It is not business as usual at Ford, said Darryl Martin, director of automotive applications at the American Iron & Steel Institute in Southfield, Mich.
'Ford is very serious,' Martin said. 'They have to be. They are being hard pressed to reduce weight. They are being hard pressed to increase fuel economy.'
The institute did not participate in the workshop but is already working with Ford on the potential of lightweight steel auto bodies.
Lear Corp., which supplied aluminum seat frames for the Ford P2000 research vehicle, is determining if that seat technology will work in a production-volume vehicle, Sweder said.
Budd Co. is exploring use of lightweight sheet molding compound, a type of plastic, in bumper beams and instrument panel structures, he said.
Another key to weight reduction, in Parry-Jones' view, is smaller and better-designed systems and subsystems of parts. They will yield lighter vehicles without sacrificing interior space, he said.
Ford also wants suppliers to take advantage of today's computer tools to create more lightweight parts using existing materials.
A 10 percent cut in weight can trim fuel use by 10 to 15 percent, Parry-Jones said. That equation includes a smaller-displacement engine - but no loss of engine performance - because of the lighter vehicle weight.
Ford failed to meet both the car and truck corporate average fuel economy standards in the 1997 model year, according to preliminary figures. In 1998, the company expects to miss the 20.7 mpg light-truck standard but meet the 27.5 mpg car requirement.
In drumming up supplier support for weight reduction last week, Parry-Jones cited President Clinton's January proposal to offer a tax credit to purchasers of fuel-efficient vehicles. The plan has languished in Congress. But Parry-Jones views it as a harbinger.
'We're assuming we'll see more and more of that kind of subtle, indirect - as well as more direct - pressure,' Parry-Jones said.
In Ford's vehicle development centers, the overriding mandate has been to work with suppliers to cut costs. Now, vehicle centers also must be willing to consider new ideas and not rebuff suppliers with innovative proposals, Sweder said.
Decreasing vehicle weight will yield other payoffs.
Focusing on vehicle weight may help defuse the growing debate over car-and-truck compatibility in vehicle crashes, Sweder said.
In the past, the emphasis has been on reducing the weight of passenger cars. If trucks become lighter, they may cause less damage and injury in crashes with smaller vehicles.