CRANFIELD, England - Japanese engineers working at the Nissan European Technology Center sometimes are frustrated by the complexities of designing cars for Europe.
So tricky is the European market that some end up longing for a return to Japan or a stint in North America. For an engineer or designer, life can be simpler in those places.
That is because the European market is really not a single market but a series of smaller markets existing side by side. While they have similarities, there also are maddening differences.
'Germans like dull gray cars with plastic everywhere,' said Andy Palmer, general manager of vehicle design and test at the center. 'The British like bits of wood. The French like a soft suspension. The Germans prefer a hard suspension. The Italians are a breed apart.
'That's the joy - and downside - of being an auto designer in Europe,' he said. These differences are what dictate design philosophy at Cranfield, in the peaceful countryside north of London.
With all the talk of world cars, markets actually are growing further apart. Japan has gone overboard for tall, thin vehicles. Americans love trucks. Europe has an ongoing affair with hatchbacks. So Nissan has design centers in each region.
'We're not trying to design a global car, but a European car using global technology,' Palmer said. Nissan thinks what its designers produce in Cranfield will in the future make the company competitive with Europe's biggest marques: Volkswagen, Ford and Opel/ Vauxhall, Palmer said.
Dan Jones, director of the Lean Enterprise Research Center at Cardiff University Business School, said Nissan has been ahead of Japanese rivals Toyota and Honda both in setting up a design center and in working with European suppliers. Nissan's program at Cranfield University to train suppliers to work alongside Nissan engineers is exemplary, said Jones, also co-author of The Machine that Changed the World.
As a result, Nissan leads its rivals in defective parts, with only about 150 faults per million, he said.
Over the 10 years since it opened as a collection of portable cabins adjacent to Nissan's Sunderland factory, the center has come a long way. The first job Nissan engineers tackled was in 1986, when they adapted the Nissan Bluebird so Japanese component designs could be made by European suppliers.
With each succeeding car, the engineers have moved further upstream in the design process.
A LESSON LEARNED
After the Bluebird came its replacement, the Primera, code-named P10 and launched in 1990. The goal with the Primera was to localize component sourcing at any cost, making those components meet European Community standards. Engineers also had to be sure independently owned European suppliers could make the same quality parts as their counterparts in Japan.
Nissan learned a lesson with the Primera, Palmer said. Many of the locally produced parts were not ready by the start of production because test standards had not been achieved early enough. That lesson was carried forward to the next car, the Micra supermini, launched in 1992. This time, Nissan gave suppliers specifications early so they could do their trial work, Palmer said.
As a result, Nissan saved a substantial amount of money at the tail end of the project.
After setting the groundwork by localizing Japanese-designed components, Nissan designers at Cranfield took a larger step: joining Japan at the beginning of the design process. The Primera, redesigned in 1996, embodied that process.
Japanese designers, for example, design headlamps with two vents to prevent the lights from misting up. European light makers use a single vent, and there is no noticeable difference in quality or function.
'If you force your supplier to go to double-venting in Europe, it costs you extra money for little or no benefit,' Palmer said.
However, with the redesigned Primera, Nissan's Cranfield operation achieved a more significant distinction than headlamp vents. The center designed the station wagon version of the car that was exported back to Japan, starting this year.
The next big job for Nissan's European engineers will be replacing the Almera, Nissan's entry in the critical lower-medium segment. That car, code-named HS, will be launched in 2000. With the Almera, the design center will include features specifically for European customers. For example, it will have the dial-operated seat recliner favored by Europeans rather than the lever-operated variety Japanese motorists prefer.
With the Almera, total responsibility for the derivative version rests with Cranfield and the satellite centers that report to it. The new Almera hatchback will be designed entirely in Europe and the sedan in Japan.