The new system debuted last year in the Toyota Voxy and Noah, two minivans sold in Asia. Next, Denso's factory in Battle Creek, Mich., will launch production early next year for an unnamed automaker in North America.
The trick to Denso's air conditioner is its compact dimensions.
A unit for pickups and large sedans would be built a bit wider -- to accommodate a bigger heat exchanger -- without changing its overall height or depth.
That's essential for a heating, ventilation and cooling component that must fit behind a center console. "An HVAC system resides in what we call Manhattan real estate: the center of the instrument panel, where everybody wants to be," Clemence said.
Denso got the idea for a standard HVAC system in the early 2000s after it introduced a one-size-fits-all unit for Toyota. The next logical step, says Clemence, was to design a basic unit that any automaker could use.
In 2011, Denso asked its customers whether they could accept common performance specs for an HVAC system. The automakers agreed to do so, Clemence said, although he declined to identify them.
A generic air conditioner saves money in several ways. Denso will reduce engineering costs; it will need fewer parts from fewer suppliers; and it can simplify manufacturing.
Since Denso won't have to produce different types of air conditioners, the assembly lines won't require as many changeovers for different products. Likewise, the plant can use smaller assembly robots with simplified software.
To make this possible, Denso maintained the same "hard points," or key exterior dimensions, on HVAC units for different customers, said Brenda Dredge, the company's director of production engineering.
That, in turn, allows the robots to assemble the HVAC units for different customers without a change-over on the production line.
Generic components caught on earlier among suppliers of seat components. For example, German supplier Brose North America Inc. produces 12 million gear systems for seat tracks -- a common component accepted by all its customers.
It "is the same for Chrysler, Ford, BMW, Mercedes," said Carsten Brandt, the company's development director for seat systems. "They all use the same gear system."
Brose first produced generic gears in 2001 and is expanding its portfolio of generic components. The key is to do so for "under the skin" components, leaving automakers free to create a unique brand identity.
All of Brose's generic components "are invisible to the end user," said Arnd Herwig, the company's vice president of development. "We are the guys that make things that work in the background."