The rear fascia on the '98 Accord coupe was a huge development challenge. Styling wanted it big. Manufacturing initially determined that it would take a $10-million investment to make it. But then they came up with a new molding procedure so that everyone—including the customer—is satisfied.
The product development program for the 1998 Honda Accord coupe was performed in the U.S., in Torrance, California, and in Honda facilities in both Raymond, Ohio (site of Honda R&D), and, about a mile away, at the company's Marysville Assembly Plant. The '98 Accord sedan was developed by engineers in Japan.
According to Erik Berkman, large project leader for the coupe, the geography was not an issue. There was the necessity for travel across the country and across the Pacific (although the coupe and the sedan are truly distinct vehicles—the coupe is 1.8-in. shorter than the sedan; the only common exterior part is the headlight; the only common interior parts are the steering wheel, center console, and instrument panel—they both are, after all, Accords), but apparently this didn't hinder the development program. In fact, in one regard, having people working 12 time zones out of sync had a benefit. Berkman says, "We'd be able to send a fax to Japan with questions when we'd leave for the day. Often, when we'd come in the next day, the answers would be awaiting us. If we'd been in the same time zone, that wouldn't have happened." As there were Japanese team members in Ohio, whenever there were important issues that came in via fax from Japan, these team members would do a quick translation. It wasn't necessary to utilize the company's translations services, which probably wouldn't share the sense of urgency that the team members had. And urgency was certainly the order of the day.
According to Berkman, the first data, scanned from a full-sized clay model of the coupe, arrived at Honda R&D in Raymond from Torrance in August, 1995. Styling wasn't frozen at that point, but the engineers needed a place to start. Drawings and prototypes were developed in January, 1996. Full production was launched in September, 1997. That's urgency.
At the top level, the product development was orchestrated by a cross-functional team. The program that puts this together is called "SED"—Sales, Engineering, Development. The group members thereof helped make the decisions about what the car would be, the level of the costs, the tradeoffs to get what was required and what was desired, and so on.
The coupe was styled by Eric Schumaker, principle designer at Honda R&D in Torrance—who hastens to point out that he isn't the only one who was involved in creating the coupe's design, that plenty of people had made contributions to what's on the road. His task was to carry the design theme through to when the design had been engineered and the engineering had become tooling and the tooling had become components that ultimately became the coupe. In other words, he was involved from the first sketches to product launch.
One of the people in Ohio that Schumaker worked closely with is Laura Minor, senior engineer responsible for the vehicle exterior. (In addition to the body, there were analogous engineers assigned to the interior, electrical systems, engine, and chassis.) Minor says that her responsibility was to take the data provided by the scanned clay model and transform it into what it takes to make a mass-produced automobile. In a macro sense, this is a three-stage process:
1. Feasibility. Determine whether the parts can be stamped and assembled. Calculate costs.
2. Issue part drawings. This, Minor maintains, is "the nitty-gritty." These drawings would lead to more precise cost calculations and, eventually, to prototype builds. The builds would, in turn, lead to an array of feedback related to crash performance, noise, ergonomic issues, etc. Then there would be required modifications.
3. Mass production. In large part, Minor served as a mediator between the stylists and manufacturing. She provides an example: the rear bumper fascia. Schumaker wanted to have a large rear fascia. So, the fascia design was analyzed. A determination was made that the only way that it could be made was in two pieces. There would be a cut line between the top and the bottom. Upon being advised of this, Schumaker resisted. He didn't want cut lines. So Minor went to the Marysville plant and talked to the injection molding people there. (There's been a plastics plant running within the facility since 1986). "We can say we can do something only if we get an okay from manufacturing," Minor points out.
In other words, if the plastics people at Marysville said that it couldn't be done, then it wouldn't be done. They checked it out. And determined that they could make the part the way Schumaker envisioned it.
But there was one non-trivial problem. They had a 3,000-ton molding machine. Near as they could tell, it would be necessary to have a 4,000-ton machine to do the job. After all, the coupe's fascia is 43% larger than the fascia on the 1997 model.
So it was Minor back to Schumaker. He continued to insist that it needed to be the way it was designed. The manufacturing people had calculated that they'd need to invest about $10-million in new equipment to make the fascia. But Schumaker's heels were really dug in deeply. It was Minor back to manufacturing. And they figured out how it could be produced without acquiring a bigger molding machine. The solution was multi-point low-pressure injection. They developed a mold that had more (six instead of two) and larger gates. This process permitted them not only to make the fascia—which accounts for about 60% of the area on the rear of the vehicle—but to do it within the same cycle time (77.5 seconds) as was needed for the 1997 fascias.
A few observations about the development process:
• Minor describes it as being "very efficient." She has a degree in aeronautical engineering and worked at Boeing prior to joining Honda, so one can safely assume that efficient has substantial meaning in her lexicon. She says that things could get done without any bureaucracy or red tape. Remarked Schumaker: "We hammered stuff out. We'd go in at 8 and get out at 4 and got gobs of work done." (He, incidentally, had been with Chrysler prior to joining Honda, where he did work on such things as facelifts for the Daytona and the LeBaron, and work on the Cirrus/Stratus, the minivan, and the first-generation LHs.)
• The manufacturing people were part of the development process. They were often challenged to do things that previously hadn't been considered feasible, yet they set about to make them happen. "You know how at some places people say `We do it this way' and they refuse to change? The people at Marysville aren't like that," Minor says.
• Although styling got what it wanted in cases—as in the rear fascia—Schumaker admits he didn't always win. "I pick my battles." In what is a coincidental symmetry, Schumaker says that he would have preferred it if the front fascia was lower than it is, but he couldn't get it that way. (It was necessary to have a larger opening to keep the engine cool.) Schumaker notes, "I didn't design this car for me, but for the customer." Resistance was based on trying to do the right thing, not ego.
• Even in places where product development is done quickly, it isn't a walk in the park. Erik Berkman recalls meetings at which cost targets were set up against what was desired, as in leather versus cloth and 20-ounce carpet versus 19-ounce. "Sometimes we'd fight, argue, and, if need be, bring in the customer."