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TOWN CAR ODYSSEY : In the redesign of its consummately American luxury sedan, Lincoln turned to Japan and Europe for help.

October 08, 1989|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

"I went down and talked to them, and concluded they really knew what they were doing," recalls Marshall.

Japan Brought In

With the English firm handling the basic engineering, Marshall signed off on the Town Car, making it Ford's first domestic car to be engineered overseas--and by outsiders.

Meanwhile, to improve quality and further shorten the development schedule, Ford turned to Japan to manufacture the car's outer body. Unhappy with the quality that it was getting from the Budd Co., its traditional Detroit supplier of exterior metal body panels, Ford hired Ogihara Iron Works, a Japanese metal stamping firm, to produce all of the car's outer panels. It was the first time that Ford had called on a foreign supplier to produce the entire body for one of its cars.

Ogihara had just opened a factory a few miles from the Wixom assembly plant to supply parts for the Continental, so the same facility could now supply the Town Car with parts on a quick, "just-in-time" basis, allowing Ford to reduce parts inventories at Wixom.

But all of this international cooperation led to communication problems. Prototypes were being built in England, while the first outer bodies were being produced in Japan until Ogihara could begin full-scale production in Michigan. Ford had to station engineers in England to keep track of the engineering work, and eventually asked International Automotive to open a Detroit office.

Meanwhile, Ford also set up satellite-linked, single-frame television monitors in Japan, Britain and the United States to process documents and data instantaneously between Ogihara, International Automotive and the FN36 project team in Dearborn.

Soon after International Automotive shipped the first six prototypes to Dearborn, Ford started hand-building its own--at $300,000 apiece--in a small pre-production plant in Dearborn.

But as the first few came off the line in December, 1987, Ford officials realized that they had another crisis: The quality of the prototypes was lousy.

The project team's initial quality goals had called for the new Town Car to approach the levels of the best German and Japanese cars. But something had gone terribly wrong.

Faced with a deadline for the start of commercial production that couldn't be delayed because of the air-bag rule, the poor prototype quality struck fear into the leaders of the FN36 project. It raised the prospect of long delays on a program that was already behind schedule.

"Because of the passive restraint (air-bag) requirement, we simply couldn't fail," to meet the project's timetable, says Zeniuk.

Prototype System Changed

In response, the project team mounted a full-court press. In January, 1988, Ford decided to go into "launch" mode on the car, nearly a year ahead of schedule, to intensify the car's development. One of Ford's most senior manufacturing executives, Hal Foss, was installed as launch manager, a position normally held by a lower-level engineer. His clout at Ford helped get things moving.

Quickly, the launch team engineers moved to the Wixom plant, about 25 miles from Dearborn. The team held daily, rather than weekly, launch meetings to review problems. And, in an innovative step still rare in the auto industry, prototype production was also shifted to the Wixom assembly line to familiarize the plant's managers and line workers with the car early in the development process.

But the team had to do something more dramatic to make up for lost time.

Foss hit upon a solution that both shortened the timetable and improved quality. It was a change that sounds like common sense to an outsider, but which ran counter to auto industry tradition.

Foss and project manager John Jay imposed a firm policy that all "engineering changes"--any modifications to the car or its parts--had to be made on the early prototypes, not on models built closer to "Job One"--the start of regular commercial production. All engineers on the project would have to sign off on their areas of responsibility in December, 1988, and changes would be forbidden after that.

At the same time, all components on the prototypes, and the tools and equipment used to make them, would have to meet the same, exacting specifications that would later be required on cars produced for sale to the public. The rules applied to engineers both at Ford and at outside suppliers.

The new policy was revolutionary. Although prototype cars are hand-built, they rarely meet the quality levels of the mass-produced cars later sold to the public, because the tooling and manufacturing processes have yet to be refined. As a result, engineering changes are often made down to the wire to catch prototype mistakes.

Foss' policy brought instant rewards for the Town Car. Not only did the project catch up, but prototype quality also soared. By late 1988, prototype quality was approaching the levels set for Job One.

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