DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. is modifying its vehicle-launch procedures to catch problems earlier, said Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of the Americas.
The changes come after quality problems hobbled several important launches of Ford vehicles, including the Ford Escape and Lincoln MKZ.
"We've done a complete analysis," Hinrichs told Automotive News, "on lessons learned in the last couple of years, including the recent MKZ launch, and are now incorporating a number of changes in our development and new-model launch process."
Ford is "trying to be a lot more proactive earlier in the development process to identify the issues and get in front of them," he said.
The process improvements, many instituted in the first quarter, include:
- Monthly launch reviews, including more extensive quality comparisons with competitors' vehicles.
- Greater use of technology, including three-dimensional computer simulations, to spot potential quality problems earlier.
- Hiring engineers and assigning them to supplier plants to make sure suppliers have the capacity to keep up with an increased pace of vehicle launches and midcycle model changes.
Hinrichs admitted that the frenetic pace of new- and redesigned-model launches during the past two years strained Ford and its suppliers as they were recovering from the recession. Because the rapid pace of launches will continue, Ford and its suppliers have to be prepared, he said.
"You have to look at what the North American team has taken on in the last couple of years. We launched new global platforms -- not just new products but all-new global platforms on the Focus, Escape and Fusion -- all within a two-year time period. In a couple of those cases we redid the whole plant at the same time," Hinrichs said, citing the Wayne, Mich., and Louisville, Ky., assembly plants.
"We've gone through some growing pains getting those new processes and plants launched, and we've learned a lot from that."
The Escape and MKZ launch woes were the most publicized. A cooling problem that emerged on the 2013 Escape could cause engine fires. There were no injuries, but Ford asked owners of some Escapes with 1.6-liter EcoBoost engines to park their vehicles until repairs could be made. Ford tweaked the engine software to address the problem.
Quality glitches and parts shortages at the factory in Hermosillo, Mexico, forced Ford to ship hundreds of MKZs to its Flat Rock, Mich., assembly plant for quality inspections and repairs this year. Many early MKZ customers had to wait months for their cars while dealers had little or no information on when the cars would be delivered.
In addition, Hinrichs said, some Ford Fusions had to be brought to Flat Rock for extra inspections and repairs. He did not specify the problems except to say they were similar to the MKZ's. The cars share the same mid-sized sedan platform and many suppliers, and they are built on the same line at Hermosillo.
"Some fit-and-finish issues we wanted to work through" on the MKZ prompted a greater use of 3-D computer visualization, Hinrichs said.
"You can put the goggles on and see a vehicle," including whether parts are going to line up properly or leave unacceptable gaps, he said. That's a huge help because "you can't build enough prototypes to see all the different variations we have in our vehicles."
Ford's launch reviews of major model programs now involve "global skill team leaders" from across multiple disciplines such as manufacturing, product development, quality and purchasing, Hinrichs said. The meetings include a look at competitive vehicles and the current version of the vehicle as well.
"The most important thing is to get the physical product and the issues from the team out on the table with all the leadership there," Hinrichs said.
He said the MKZ's problems resulted from issues at both Ford and its suppliers. For example, "Maybe there's a late design change" from Ford. "So supplier X is late to get the tooling put in place to be able to do prototype parts and production parts to make the launch."
He said Ford is working more closely with suppliers to reduce such issues.
"You want to help that supplier along the way be ready," Hinrichs said. The question is not just whether the part meets the specifications but whether the company has "the ability to run at rate to meet our volume as we ramp up the acceleration curve."
Starting in the first quarter, Ford has been working more closely with suppliers to make sure they have the capacity to keep up with the increased tempo of Ford's future launch programs. That way Ford won't get caught short of parts as it did with the MKZ.
"We're adding resources in our North American organization to support the site visits and what we call supplier technical assistance to help our supply base," Hinrichs said.
"We are hiring. We have a very strong product cadence of new-model introductions over the next couple of years so we want to help our supplier base make that happen."
Hinrichs said Ford needs to know early on if a supplier is having problems meeting the requirements of a launch program.
Even though Ford launched several new global platforms in the past two years, the company's midcycle refreshes of those platforms will be more extensive.
"We have a much more frequent cadence of freshening vehicles than we historically had," Hinrichs said. "That means we have to get our suppliers and ourselves ready to support a more frequent refresh rate."