DETROIT - Tim Jackson enjoys the sound made by automakers looking for more personality in their vehicles.
Those automakers are turning to Jackson and other suppliers for the accessories that can add higher profits in new-car showrooms. The twist: These features are being added as the vehicles are being built, not after.
Jackson, general manager for North American operations for Tenneco Automotive Inc., helped Ford Motor Co. create the exhaust systems and their distinctive sounds for two specialty mass-produced F-series pickup trucks. The two limited-edition performance vehicles are the Harley-Davidson F-150 pickup and the SVT Lightning pickup.
Creating performance, interior, styling and other packages gives automakers the ability to offer a broad spectrum of unique vehicles much quicker and cheaper than with vehicle redesigns.
Making dollars count
The strategy is translating into higher profits for automakers and greater per-vehicle content for their parts suppliers, said industry consultant Dennis Virag.
'It's a big opportunity for automakers and suppliers,' said Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich. 'Car and truck buyers want something that is different, and mass customization allows them to get that at a reasonable price.'
The idea behind the so-called 'mass customization' trend is to make the most of the production dollar. Automakers save money when they can sell many vehicles off the same platform. But high volume and excitement often are at odds. As a result, automakers want suppliers to help them create distinct variations off the basic platform.
True, special editions of vehicles are nothing new. But the trend is a matter of degree. Now, automakers typically offer several models of the same nameplate. In the future, the range of variety and the prices could be much broader.
Several trends are driving the concept. Sticker prices on new vehicles are flat, so automakers are looking for new ways to boost revenue. Many young buyers are eager to customize to make a personal statement. Mass customization also allows automakers to make their vehicles stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Much of the push comes from the success of the aftermarket.
Sales of light-truck accessories in 1998 alone totaled $2.2 billion, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association. A large part came from sales of performance items, but demand is strong for electronics and body kits.
Tenneco Automotive of Lake Forrest, Ill., makes shocks, struts and exhaust systems. It is a major aftermarket supplier but wants to boost its original equipment accessory business. Its goal: $500 for each light-duty truck produced on North American assembly lines.
Inside the car, interiors supplier Lear Corp. is watching consumer lifestyles in its bid for the customization market. Lear unveiled a mix-and-match interior system at this month's SAE 2000 World Congress in Detroit.
Lear's common architecture would support the use of interchangeable seats, cockpits, overhead consoles and modular systems. In Lear's scenario, Dad would be able to select an interior that suits him; if his teen son bought the same car, he could pick colors, features and styles that fit his tastes.
James Masters, president of Lear's Technology Division, said consumers could upgrade or add new features as their needs, lifestyle and earnings changed. He said the strategy would reduce cost and development time for vehicle manufacturers.
Johnson Controls Inc. of Plymouth, Mich., introduced a similar system at the Frankfurt auto show in Germany last September. Among the features on its concept car was a modular instrument panel that could be updated simply by plugging in a new system.
Neil De Koker, managing director for the Original Equipment Suppliers Association of Troy, Mich., said suppliers such as Lear and Johnson Controls may be able to use their attention-getting systems to create consumer awareness and to create additional demand for their companies.
Whether new demand leads to higher profits is another question.
'At this very early stage, there is no clear evidence yet of improved profitability,' De Koker said.
That hasn't stopped Siemens Automotive Corp. of Auburn Hills, Mich., from exploring electronic customizing. One possibility its engineers are developing is an instrument panel with the versatility of a computer screen.
Spokesman David Ladd said a display featuring analog-style gauges could be quickly changed to one displaying digital gauges. Still other styles could be downloaded via the Internet from the automakers, he said.
Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. displayed a Ford Windstar at the SAE show. It sported the high-tech look of graphite on its steering wheel, overhead console and instrument panel. The expensive look came from a Delphi process of dipping nonporous items in a special solution to attach a decal-like material.
Brian Semivan, a Delphi sales manager, said the process easily could be used to change one theme to any number of choices for individuals, corporate fleets or even vehicles for special events.