Published on November 7th, 2014 | by Daniel Sherman Fernandez0
Single Platform Multiple Vehicles, The Future Of Our New Cars
Like Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn, Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn and Toyota chief Akio Toyoda, know that having prolific, flexible, globally compatible megaplatforms is a key to success in the fast-expanding, ultracompetitive volume car manufacturing business. Enormous economies of scale, lower development expenditure, faster times to market and the ability to build multiple cars on one line are some of the other mouthwatering benefits of megaplatforms. Mastering this part of the business could ultimately decide which automakers survive and which ones don’t as pressures from customers, competitors and regulators escalate.
Two of Europe’s automakers, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, do not have global mega-platforms and analysts say that leaves them vulnerable in an industry in which bigger is often better, especially when it comes to procurement and establishing a worldwide presence. Also, by the time GM is finally finished with this mammoth platform revamp it will be 2025 — the kind of distant future one might almost expect from science fiction movies given the auto industry’s current rapid pace of change. By then, it might be commonplace on European roads for people to be chauffeured around in self-driven cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells with only water vapor as exhaust.
Even those carmakers with sheer scale such as GM, which despite its size still lags the competition in terms of rationalizing its platforms, cannot expect to see big benefits from the move to megaplatforms, experts say. Exane’s Pearson believes that in an industry where relative advantages are competed away quickly, laggards are motivated more by a defensive fear not to fall too far behind. “It’s like with any first-mover advantage whether it’s a hit model or a flexible architecture – the leaders tend to generate greater benefits and hang onto them longer than those that come late to the party,” he said.
The rise of such modular architectures is no coincidence, since they are, in theory at least, the perfect answer to the dilemmas that the industry faces. Like its rivals, VW had been searching for a silver-bullet solution referred to as mass customization, in which it could meet demands for an increasingly diverse range of cars packed with connectivity, infotainment and a host of other driver assistance and safety features — all at a low cost. At the same time VW needed to protect itself against severe pricing pressure and market volatility in Europe, tightening fuel-efficiency standards and an ever growing complexity in their production plants and supply chain.
As a group, VW this year is on track to sell 10 million vehicles across a dozen brands, operate more than 100 different manufacturing plants and build more than 300 different models spanning from mainstream hatchbacks to heavy-duty commercial trucks. VW’s answer has been MQB, which uses modular “toolkits” to ultimately create more than 40 cars of different wheelbases, track widths, wheel sizes and seat positions. This allows it to leverage synergies not just horizontally across brands but vertically across entire segments from subcompacts all the way to midsize sedans. Previously, carmakers could not vary the basic dimensions of a car built off a specific platform, and only had the ability to put a different “top hat” onto the same chassis to differentiate models. So when VW completed the development in 2012, the company used words such as “milestone” and “quantum leap” to describe its ability to build cars of varying shapes and sizes with many of the same underpinnings so long as they shared one basic characteristic.
By mounting engines transversely at exactly the same angle, VW can standardize key elements of a car, such as the exhaust line, driveshaft and transmission location and reduce the number of engine and transmission variations by about 90 percent. Two million cars, or one-fifth of VW Group volumes, will use MQB this year. “The number of MQB vehicles built will rise toward the 4 million mark in 2016. By then, the modular transverse toolkit will already be deployed in more than 20 plants in a dozen countries worldwide,” Winterkorn said
By creating a system of interchangeable building blocks, or modules, that share standardized interfaces, automakers can continually develop and optimize groups of components and subassemblies independent of one another. Executed properly, this approach lowers development costs, rationalizes the supply chain, reduces complexity, improves quality and speeds up time to market. The ultimate result is a model range that can be expanded with minimal effort to target high-demand segments, alternative powertrains or new niche derivatives that previously would not have been economically feasible.