Ford shifts to vehicle architectures

Ford is shifting from nine global platforms to five flexible vehicle architectures, with a strong emphasis on module sharing.
Ford Motor Company is going from nine global platforms to five flexible vehicle architectures with a strong emphasis on sharing modules. The automaker’s revised product development process is predicted to push down the average age of its vehicles from the current 5.7 years to 3.3 years in 2020. One twist is that as new Ford products reach global markets faster, engineers won’t be devoting much time to reinventing vehicle sub-system modules.

“Engineers have always been incentivized and rewarded based on their ability to come up with something new. So it is really hard to say to an engineer, ‘I want you to reuse something that someone else engineered’,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford Motor Company’s executive vice president of product development and purchasing (left), told Automotive Engineering.

As the 2005 Mustang’s chief engineer, Thai-Tang knows that a module re-use directive can be counter-intuitive to the decades-old product-creation mantra. “Engineers always want to tinker and make something better. So for me, that cultural mindset-shift is probably the biggest challenge,” he said.

But challenging traditions will appeal to an engineer’s logical mind, Thai-Tang predicts.

When engineers work with a traditional platform, that chassis/underbody comprises about 30% of the vehicle. “So the maximum sharing that we’re experiencing is roughly only 30% of the value content. But there’s another 40% in the upper body and the powertrain that we think we can share across five architectures,” Thai-Tang said.

By 2023, Ford plans to go from its current nine global platforms to five flexible vehicle architectures: front wheel drive unibody; rear wheel drive unibody; commercial van unibody; body-on-frame; and an architecture optimized for battery-electric vehicles. All five architectures are viable for hybrid- and plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles.

The upside is that each specific architecture can be modified by varying ride heights, track widths, wheelbases, and silhouettes. Ford’s plan calls for building various vehicle models that use the same architecture via flexible manufacturing processes. In certain cases, such as an entry-level vehicle for specific markets, Ford may stay with a legacy product to achieve a desired price point.

Additional efficiency benefits are tied to the re-use of modules.

For example, a suspension system or instrument panel crossbeam can be shared among models built from a specific vehicle architecture. “But by sharing an AWD system, an infotainment system, an HVAC system, or another ‘common’ module across one or more architectures, we could see upward of 70% re-use,” Thai-Tang said. There is still going to be program-specific content, including parts that differentiate a vehicle’s appearance, and that content represents the remaining 30%, he added.

The first Ford vehicle to use a flexible vehicle architecture is the fourth-generation front wheel drive Focus (top), which went on sale in Europe and China in 2018. “We have the ability to go up to a C/D-size vehicle, and we can also shrink it,” Thai-Tang said. North America is slated to get the first Focus crossover utility, Focus Active, in the second half of 2019.

Ford is targeting to reduce costs by $25.5 billion via its flexible vehicle architectures and other operational changes. “That amounts to a 3% cost reduction on our total spend every year for the next five years on average,” Thai-Tang said.

Over that same timespan, Ford will add nine new nameplates as the portfolio grows from 20 to 23 vehicles. In 2015, Ford spent just as much money on cars as it did on utilities. But over the next two years, approximately 80% will be spent on trucks and utility vehicles. “It’s all about re-allocating resources and capital into areas where we can win,” he said.

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