BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- BMW AG has refined processes at its plant in Spartanburg, S.C., to the point where car buyers can change an order as little as four days before their vehicle is produced.
But several obstacles prevent that kind of flexibility from becoming common for nonluxury nameplates, panelists at the Automotive News Manufacturing Conference said on Tuesday.
The U.S. supply chain is not structured for widespread build-to-order, said Craig Cather, CEO of CSM Worldwide. U.S. dealers also want inventory to offer buyers at the point of sale, Cather said.
Most consumers are more interested in price and a firm delivery date than in the freedom to custom order the details, Cather said. But that flexibility is attractive to many luxury buyers, says Jeffrey Gaudiano, department manager of structural planning and distribution at BMW's Spartanburg plant.
Customers will pay more for the ability to make late changes, Gaudiano said.
With its flexible manufacturing and refined information technology system, BMW can deliver a car in as little as 11 days from the time it is ordered, he said. Panelists said that was the industry benchmark.
Gaudiano said that 71 percent of the vehicles built at in Spartanburg are for a specific customer.
Said Charles Ernst, vice president and plant manager at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama: "I guess the ultimate dream for all of us at Honda would be for customers to go into a dealership, walk up to the sales counter and say, 'I would like a No. 3 combo, super sized, with leather, alloy wheels and a sunroof -- all in red,'
"And a few minutes later, out would come the customer's dream car, factory-fresh and with a full tank of gas, at no extra charge. Believe it or not, we've gotten a lot closer to doing that with the Odyssey minivan."
Ernst said it usually takes about 14 days from order to delivery for an Odyssey.
Build-to-order has grown out of the personal computer industry's ability to give people exactly what they want, quickly. But the jury is still out on whether it can work in the United States.
Chief obstacles include overcoming buyer preferences for immediate gratification and the reluctance of U.S. customers to pay a premium for the service.
Even so, Cather says the future looks bright for custom building.
"In 10 years, build-to-order will certainly be further along than it is today," he said. "You are going to see some very sophisticated build-to-order systems with the luxury manufacturers. I am certain all OEMs will find a way to build vehicles more quickly for consumers whatever the choice and the selection of content will be."
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