By Jil McIntosh

Nothing lasts forever. And that’s especially true in the automotive industry, where companies continually offer new or updated models.

In reality, any “new” design has been in the works for two years or more – and automakers are currently working that far into the future. Changeovers are complex and multi-levelled, from preliminary sketches to finished product.

DaimlerChrysler Brampton Assembly Plant
DaimlerChrysler Brampton Assembly Plant. Click image to enlarge

While all automakers follow the same basic steps, the switch from DaimlerChrysler’s 2004 Intrepid/Concorde to 2005 300/Magnum at its Brampton, Ontario assembly plant was further complicated by a switch from front-wheel to rear-wheel-drive, necessitating major changes in engineering and factory production.

“These cars have been around since 2001,” says Eric Ridenour, executive vice-president for product development for Chrysler Group, referring to the Intrepid and Concorde. “Even before the merger (with Daimler), the program was starting then.”

Manufacturers look at many factors when developing a design, including buying trends, competition, and “white space” – a product missing from the line-up. “We’re constantly reviewing, several times a month,” Ridenour says.

Changeover begins with a business case. The company determines how much it will have to invest, including time and resources, and works out pricing and volume. It starts with about 50 people and eventually booms to around 800, in teams of specialized engineers and designers. Final decisions are made by an executive committee.

The cars go from sketches to “build up”, where models are made using high-tech computers and low-tech clay. Introduced by General Motors’ stylist Harley Earl in the 1920s, full-size clay models may seem archaic, but they provide a perspective that computers can’t. “We do a lot of digital monitoring, but even though we have big screens, in clay you get full proportions you can’t pick up in two dimensions,” Ridenour says.

While the body takes shape, crews work on other components – engine, brakes, interior. Nothing can be overlooked. “We have to figure out where the passenger is, the proper amount of room, how high they are off the ground,” Ridenour says. “We have to work on the heating and vents, the wiring, the seats. It all has to happen so you can make sure you have full feasibility.”

Even as the final design takes shape, committees also work on alternative plans, should the car fall short in the marketplace, and on long-term design changes, to be implemented as the model ages. With a backup plan, automakers can boost flagging sales by quickly adding engine alternatives or making styling changes for the vehicle’s second year if necessary. It’s standard practice, but Ridenour admits the company was confident enough of 300/Magnum’s success that the model had no backup.

While the car takes shape, the company assesses its various factories to decide where and how to build it.

“We work very closely with engineering, and our involvement starts with the clay (model),” says Frank Ewasyshyn, executive VP of DaimlerChrysler manufacturing. “You’ve got to be able to take their design and turn it into sheet metal. If we couldn’t build it, they’d have to change it.”

Computers simulate the movement of sheet metal being stamped, to see if a panel can actually be produced. “You can look at the shape of a panel and form it in the virtual world,” Ewasyshyn says. “We go from clay to fiberglass, which gives us a model with high-gloss surfaces. From that we process and design the dies to make those parts.”

Working in parallel, teams of engineers build driveline components which come together in “pilot” vehicles – operational, hand-built prototypes made in the factory. “We run three pilots, one for engineering and two for manufacturing,” Ewasyshyn says. “Then we do two levels of pilots, with the second equivalent to volume production. Then we’re up and into production.”

Manufacturing launch of the 2005 Dodge Magnum at DaimlerChrysler's Brampton Assembly Plant
Manufacturing launch of the 2005 Dodge Magnum at DaimlerChrysler’s Brampton Assembly Plant. Click image to enlarge

Plant changeover is done with as little disruption as possible; some is done while the plant is running, while complete shutdown usually coincides with summer holidays. This is when major changes take place. “In Brampton we changed 80 per cent of the bodyshop, putting in brand-new equipment to make the sides, the roof and the underbody,” Ewasyshyn says.

Workers have to be retrained on some jobs, and the build schedule is scrutinized so that each operator can work smoothly. “We control options to make sure the work level is controlled across the plant,” Ewasyshyn says. For example, a sunroof may add 30 seconds to an assembler’s job; if he gets several sunroof-equipped cars in a row, the worker will eventually end up out of his work station.

As the cars come out, so does the word. Print and television advertising, dealership promotions and press information are designed and released alongside the models.

And even as the new cars roll off the line, the design committee is working into the future. “Models have roughly a five-year timeframe,” Eric Ridenour says. “It varies by product. Sportscar product is much shorter, and trucks tend to run a little longer. We do things along the course to keep freshness in the marketplace, but you keep revisiting and see how well they’re doing. It’s a constant competitive battle and in the end, the marketplace will decide things for you.”

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