(Note: This story is not for the TL;NR crowd. If you need it in one short sentence: If your car company isn’t working on a kit architecture, kiss them good-bye.)
Call it coincidence, but immediately after TTAC flogged GM for having missed the kit architecture train, and for being chained to the antique platform model well into the next decade and possibly beyond, GM launched operation pushback. It could not be tolerated that the supposedly “New GM” was painted as a company with out-of-touch technology, so Selim Bingol rallied his troops.
The first skirmishes were fought by GM partisans dropped behind the lines of the story. Their comments seemingly were taken from a common sheet of talking points:
(This story intentionally appears on a weekend. This type of partisan usually works 9-5.)
- Standardization bad, because when you screw up, you screw up big.
- Ain’t this simply Badge Engineering again?
- What’s that “kit” stuff anyway, isn’t it just a short word for “platform?”
- If it comes from biassed TTAC, it can’t be believed anyway, so move on, nothing to see. Must be a slow newsday.
Later in the newsday, bigger guns were rolled out. Bloomberg checked its notes taken during a March video interview with GM’s product development chief Mary Barra, and ran a lengthy story , heavy on women’s issues and glass ceilings, but also on platforms other than platform heels:
“That means building cars using “platforms”—industry-speak for the basic structure and parts that can be tweaked and repurposed for multiple vehicles. The idea is to use as few platforms as possible, which speeds up development and lowers costs. VW is pushing to reduce its 15 platforms to five by 2019, with more than 55 percent of its vehicles based on just one of those platforms. VW says this will cut its costs by 20 percent.
In 2010, GM had 30 platforms. Barra says the company is on track to reduce that to fewer than 10 by 2020, which should help reduce development costs by $1 billion a year.”
Platforms? Uh-uh. Talking points at work. Message: GM and VW both reduce their platforms, so what’s the point? The story ignores, intentionally or recklessly, that modular architectures are no platforms.
10 platforms by 2020? Uh-uh. GM’s slides, shown during the Global Business Conference Call on June 12, show a target of 17 platforms by 2018, and I doubt that number will suddenly shrink to 10 platforms only two years later. Trust me, if 10 platforms by 2020 would indeed be the target, it would have been on the slides in big bold letters.
As far as Volkswagen’s allegedly 15 existing platforms are concerned (that count appears to come from Wikipedia), they won’t be replaced by five new platforms. As far as Volkswagen is concerned, platforms are dead. Future Volkswagen Group cars will be built based on four, not five, kits, not platforms. Said Volkswagen last year:
“Within the Group, the MQB developed under the auspices of the Volkswagen brand is supplemented by the Modular Longitudinal System (MLB) from Audi, the Modular Standard System (MSB) with Porsche as the competence center and finally the ‘New Small Family’ – the most compact vehicle model series with the Volkswagen up!, SEAT Mii and ŠKODA Citigo.”
These four kits cover everything from a tiny up! to a big Bentley. There even are whispers of a huge universal kit that builds on the four available now. Porsche cleverly claimed the logical name “Modularer Standardbaukasten” (Modular Standard Kit) as theirs, even if it is used to build the definitely non-standard exotic parts of Volkswagen’s empire, Porsches, Bentleys, possibly Bugattis and Lamborghinis, and the more esoteric nameplates of Volkswagen and Audi.
On the same June 13th our platform story ran, Bloomberg activated its Tokyo crew to check on Toyota. Toyota currently is a bit buttoned-up when it comes to its modular architecture, but it definitely is in the works. If you ask them, you receive, polite as they are, a “we are still working on it.” With nothing new from Toyota, Bloomberg’s reporters Ma Jie and Masatsugu Horie recalled that they were invited to an eyes-only, no cameras, on-background session in March with Toyota’s Mitsuhisa Kato. Kato is Toyota’s Hackenberg. He is the Chief of all Chief Engineers, he heads Toyota’s R&D Group, and is known to share Hackenberg’s love for modules.
During the March session, when journalists were sufficiently dozing after hearing about organizational changes, 9 meter wide wind tunnels, and the need to produce to local tastes, Toyota had talked about new “car manufacturing technologies.” Tentatively named “Toyota New Global Architecture,” TNGA for short, Toyota did set their system in the same context as Volkswagen’s MQB/MLB, Nissan’s upcoming CMF Common Module Family, and Mazda’s SKYACTIV architecture.
Reminded of what they heard in March, Bloomberg now condensed the off the record session to the message that Toyota is reducing the number of parts. Lede of the story: “Toyota Motor Corp. has decided it no longer needs 50 kinds of airbags to protect drivers’ knees. Ten, the company says, ought to suffice.”
Folks at Toyota feel misunderstood, but they are currently unwilling to lift the kimono. Privately, they say that a reduction of the total parts count is one of the many consequences of a modular approach, but this definitely is not the approach in itself.
On the same 13th, publicity-wise a dark Thursday for modular systems, even Reuters joined the fray and warned:
“VW’s modular platforms, allowing for a greater proportion of parts to be shared among different brands and models, help as the company sets out to become the world’s top automaker by 2018.
Yet, they also make VW more vulnerable if one part turns out to be flawed.”
So what are those kits and modular concepts anyway?
And why are they definitely not a platform with a new fancy name?
Simply put, you build on a platform, but you build with a kit.
Any questions? Alright, in that case:
A common platform usually means what the name says: Common underbody, suspensions, steering, and engine placement. On that, a multitude of different cars can be built, or a multitude of similar cars – a platform does not protect from a lack of creativity.
A kit architecture on the other hand breaks the car down further into functional building blocks. There is no more common underbody. Different building blocks can be mated together, in theory allowing the creation of a nearly unlimited number of different cars. Nissan’s CMF does this quite literally. They divide the car into four sections – engine compartment, cockpit, front underbody and rear underbody and a common architecture for electronic components. Then, they make different modules to account for weight etc. Others probably will have more, and more esoteric modules.
But won’t that stifle creativity and lead to even more appliances? Just like the kit architectures, the English alphabet uses just a small box of modules, called the 26 characters. With them, and a few punctuation marks, anything can be written, from the bible to porn, from a summons to a love letter, from Jalopnik to TTAC.
The most important part of these kits are their interfaces. What sets Lego blocks apart from the wooden blocks of centuries past is a common interconnection standard that allows them to snap together without tools, or effort.
From what I have seen so far of the kit architectures of Volkswagen, Nissan, and Toyota, the common interconnection standard is the key concept of all three. For a fourteen year old kid who grew up with object oriented languages and who thinks in methods and properties, these kit architectures and their difference from platforms of old will come naturally. Old dinosaurs will believe they are “just another computer language,” a mistake Bernstein Research made when they called MQB just another PQ35.
Don’t expect revolutionary, super elegant solutions. Modular systems evolve, sacrificing “pure” solutions on the altar of efficiency, just like C++ or VB.NET evolved from the dark ages of Gosub lore, and just like Smalltalk remained just talk – to stay within the allegory of algorithms.
Object oriented programming has changed the landscape of computer programming, and has led to rapid development of gadgets that pervade our lives. Similarly, the object oriented kit architectures already change how cars are designed, and made. A modern assembly line long has been able to produce many different cars on the same line, necessary for the build-to-order mass customization popular in Japan and Europe. The batch-oriented way in which cars are made and sold in America has not forced this object-oriented thinking.
“Claims that VW can save up to 20% of the cost of producing a car are simply nonsensical,” says the Bernstein report. Funnily enough, the people I talked to at Nissan and Toyota use a similar, even higher number. Both talked of savings potentials “between 20 and 30 percent.” The savings will not just be “a bit on R&D,” and “a bit on supplier relationship management,” and a few other bits as Bernstein thinks.
Modular architectures will bring huge savings in terms of time to market, engineering, testing, regulatory compliance, manufacturing, and even marketing. To go from PQ35 to MQB involves a major change for a Volkswagen plant, it basically has to be rebuilt. Subsequent interruptions during model changes however will be hardly noticeable. Modular approaches allow addressing small niches in a profitable way – you never know whether a fringe craze will turn into a seminal trend.
As a result of the criticism, automakers with modular architectures in the field or in development have become a bit gun shy when it comes to savings, not because they don’t believe that all the work invested will bring nice pay-offs, most likely more because they don’t want to be caught making those forward-looking statements and answer irate stockholders in class action suits.
When I talked to Volkswagen on Friday about the topic, I had not even raised the question of savings when Volkswagen spokesman Petro Zollino already asked me to understand that “as he is responsible for research and development, Dr. Hackenberg will not comment on key financial data.” Nonetheless, Zollino said Volkswagen is “convinced that we have built an excellent foundation for our future with these kits.”
I have seen a lot of hype at Volkswagen, and over the years, I helped to produce a good deal myself. On the job, I developed a pretty good nose for it. My nose says: MQB is no hype. In German, “MQB” stands for “Modularer Querbaukasten,” which simply means “modular crosswise construction kit” – Meccano, or rather Fischertechnik to build cars with a transverse engine. If there is hype, then in the highfalutin English translation of MQB into “Modular Transverse Matrix.”
The kit architectures could influence car making at least as much as object-oriented languages influenced modern computing. Perhaps, the kits could revolutionize car making more than the assembly line. Hey, you never know.