By on March 3, 2012

The two-by-four, the 4×8 plywood sheet, the standard brick: Without standardized building materials, building houses would be a mess. The car industry is in that kind of a mess (more or less.) To get out of the mess, to shorten development times and to lower cost, just about every large automaker is on some kind of a standardization drive. Usually, these standards won’t go beyond the company, even alliances have problems agreeing on a common standard. When Nissan unveiled its Common Module Family (CMF) last Monday at its R&D  center in Atsugi, we asked whether this Common Module Family also would extend to Renault. After all, both companies had standardized on the same CEO.

We received an evasive answer.

The idea behind standardization is this: Just like houses are built from standard building materials and yet maintain their individual style (unless we have lazy architects,) cars could be designed from standard building blocks. Common platforms were one step in that direction, but it was just a first step on a very long road.

When GM announced its standardization drive last year, it was looking at 30 “core architectures” and a huge number of regional solutions. By 2014, GM wanted to shrink the number of “core architectures” to 24. By 2018, GM wanted to have eliminated all regional architectures and be ready to serve 90 percent of the volume with 14 global architectures. GM is at the very beginning of standardization.

On the other side of the spectrum appears to be Volkswagen with its MQB, MLB etc. kits. Volkswagen is about to take the next step, abandon platforms altogether and instead will design its cars from building blocks with clearly defined measurements and interfaces.

Nissan is somewhere in the middle. Nissan’s CMF uses four modules – engine compartment, cockpit, front underbody and rear underbody and a common architecture for electronic components. They call that 4+1. Then, they change the modules. They will need at least two engines compartments, three front underbodies, three cockpits, and three rear underbodies. Full standardization will take a while.

I pulled a Nissan engineer to the side and asked him how CMF compares to Volkswagen’s MQB. After the requisite quantity of air was sucked through the teeth, my engineer said that Volkswagen is in an enviable position. VW already had been building its cars from a handful of platforms, whereas Nissan “more or less did build a new platform for each car.” So for Nissan, it’s a big step to go to 4+1, which actually is 2x3x3x3+1=55

Indeed, Volkswagen makes its cars from 5 platforms, A0 through D, with most of the volume in A and B. When it comes to standardization, Volkswagen is way ahead of the crowd and can now take the next step towards the holy grail of standard building blocks, “Lego Blocks” as the dream is called in the business.

One indicator of the much higher granularity of the Volkswagen kits: Volkswagen specifically said that the kits allow them to design and built low volume cars quickly and reasonably. Nissan on the other hand stops using the CMF architecture if a car is built less than 5,000 times a year.

Designing cars from common building blocks and making them with standardized parts should lower the cost. Both Volkswagen and Nissan interestingly talk about a 30 percent cost reduction. Don’t think prices will drop because of this. Nissan says that government demands on safety and fuel efficiency raise the cost by 30 percent. The savings from standardization pay for compliance with government rules.

All larger car companies are busy with one standardization project or the other. By the end of last week, Toyota announced that it wants to develop common parts for about half of its 4,000-5,000 components within the next four years. A carmaker that is not thinking about standardization should be thinking about retirement.

The Godzilla of all standardization drives does not seem to happen: Still under the shock of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government had demanded that automakers standardize most of the parts used by all Japanese makers. As things went back to normal, this demand was quickly ignored and forgotten.


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33 Comments on “Car Companies, Standard Thyself Or Die...”

  • avatar

    If the goal is to reduce financial costs, then this is the way to go. But the trick is knowing how far to take it.

    Standardization will retreat somewhat when engineers discover they can’t optimize a vehicle for fuel efficiency, space management, performance, style, or regulation. An ultimate example is badge engineering, but I don’t think that’s what this effort is about.

    One of the challenges of standardization is that the world’s regulations are not harmonized, and some are in direct conflict with one another. A non-car example is how the world’s electrical distribution standards vary – 110 V, 220 V, 100 V, 60 Hz, 50 Hz, etc. Anyone building a product that works with all of them is inevitably building extra cost into a product, while hoping to make it up with economies of scale.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve done a lot of work in this area (in a different industry) and sub optimization is a result and it’s actually a great trade off.

      Imagine that they can build a new car this way for half the cost. So a $35,000 priced ride that cost $30,000 to build now costs $15,000 to build and sells for $20,000.

      Let’s say the options are locked in (everyone gets AC and power windows/locks) and the fuel economy drops by 10%.

      It’s a good deal for everyone, well except the UAW… If you think they were screwed, just wait.. it gets much much worse for them.

    • 0 avatar

      At a very basic level, would this mean American manufacturers adopting metric fasteners etc. or has that already happened?

      • 0 avatar

        I guess you don’t wrench on cars. American cars have been metric for a couple of decades now. Sometimes you would have both; say the engine was a carryover but the body was new. That was the way it was with my Mark VII LSC. The 5.0 HO engine was all SAE fasteners but pretty much everything else on the car was metric.

        I don’t see why standardization will screw the UAW or anybody else, at least as far as a job goes. But I can’t help but wonder if VW is so far ahead on this, why are the cars so damn unreliable? You would think standardizing would improve reliability not weaken it…

      • 0 avatar

        Even my 05 Wrangler (made in Ohio) has metric bolts

    • 0 avatar

      better example of costly duplication is language. Here in Switzerland, things sold in all regions of the country have to be labled, generally, in 3 of the 4 national languages, French, Italian, and German. Nutrition labels on packaged food are far more complex and less informative because of triplication within a limited space. Switzerland is just a microcosm of the even greater inefficiency within the EU/EEC with its myriad tongues with all of them being less efficient than and offering no comparative benefit over English.

      Btw, the whole component commonization, platform reduction, faster to market ideas are evergreen themes in the auto industry. Biggest savings ad found in commonization of engines, transmissions and instrument panel assys. I would dare say that ford’s biggest reduction in platforms happened when they started axing non performing models, second leap there was in communizing a number of component and assy sets, and suppliers, under the so-called ABF, Aligned Business Framework, and designs and manufacturing under GAP, the Generic Architecture Program initiatives.

      • 0 avatar

        Getting your nutrition label in a language you guru master is a lot better than getting it in a language that is only partially mastered.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for the small-minded ad-hominem insult. I, however, live here so I might know more about this than you.

        Settling-on and teaching a trans-european language would facilitate commerce, migration, political discourse, law, standardization and defense. Had the EC been properly forward-looking, this concept would have been an integral part of the Treaty of Rome.

        The US, on the other hand is sliding backwards as Spanish has become a de-facto 2nd national language.

      • 0 avatar

        Frankly, this is BS. You can not standardize an integral part of your (national) identity.

        It may seem more practical to switch over to English to simplify production of goods, but I am not willing to give up my native language. And I do not only live here, I was born here, I grew up here.

        As far as I can see, from a certain educational and professional level upwards we are pretty well able to handle more than one language fluently. Below these levels there isn’t much necessity to do so. All in all, there’s not that much need of giving up what you were born with.

        Even more importantly: the whole idea of the EU is not to build a new federal nation-state but to build a union that relies on these different identities coming together voluntarily. That’s definitely not the epitome of efficiency, however, efficiency was never meant to be the primary goal in the first place.

        So thank you for your narrow-minded comment that made me wonder what you may have learned about Europe at all…

      • 0 avatar

        Hardly narrow-minded, but in the best sense broad-minded, forward-thinking and inclusive. It is difficult for people to, at best, come-together and integrate, and at worst, avoid socioeconomic marginalization and ghettoization, or balkanization, if they can’t well communicate. The idea of freedom of movement, be it people, goods, ideas, etc., within the borders of a union is hampered by the lack of a common platform for communication.

        I never advocated wholesale replacement of the cultural aspects of a language, but rather parallel education in the common (trans-)national linguistic platform alongside a traditional local language. This already exists on a national scale in most of the european countries, where a dominant dialect reigns supreme over all the rest (to stay with my previous example, one can cite hochdeutsch within the german-speaking room, or how, in a more-extreme case, the basque-peoples were actively discouraged from speaking their historical tongue in Spain (these cases, however, are substantially different to the history of the retrograde efficiencies and contra-benefits accruing from the rise of spanish to be on-par with english as a quasi-2nd national language in the USA.)

        I find your “above/below a certain level” argument to be both elitist and dismissive of the least educated among us, who, once having learned a language spoken by those making the laws and levying the taxes, would reap a substantial benefit by being able to directly understand the public discourse without the risk of that discourse being colored, distorted, or worse, and to thus be more capable of exercising their rights and privileges within and to a greater whole.

      • 0 avatar

        I apologize for what you read as elitist. I can see now that one can read my comment as such. To clarify my statement: I think that on a level where you are involved in transnational relations, it is absolutely expected that you’re fluent in more than your native language. (Which is a result of relatively broadly teaching more than one language from early in school, you’re right about that.) That, however, goes with the position and is not related to an individual’s abilities, qualities, etc. – I do not rank people by their socio-economic status. So basically I pointed to organizational coecions.

        Alas, I do still still not with your view. I am all for helping people overcome barriers by qualifing them in as many fields as possible (such as language). That is the absolute basic condition for mutual exchange between people. But I can see nothing wrong in stressing cultural roots (as in Switzerland) or a societal transition (recognizing a newer and growing societal group like the Spanish-speaking in the USA) by voluntarily giving room to more than one hegemonic language. These are signs for broadly accepting a changing world where migration is the norm and maybe always have been. To exchange this plurality by imposing one ‘common platform’ unto them remains foreign to me.

      • 0 avatar

        “Thanks for the small-minded ad-hominem insult”

        As far as I can tell, he wasn’t insulting you. He is pointing out that a consumer would probably have an easier time understanding a food label written in his own language than he would in a foreign language. He may have a point.

        Ironically enough, once while in traveling in Switzerland, I had a conversation with an older woman who was bitterly complaining to me about English-speaking tourists (particularly Americans) who made no effort to speak anything but English. She found it insulting, and thought that it was particularly difficult for the older folks in the tourist and transit trade to cope with it.

        What made this interesting is that this conversation took place in French (once she realized that I could speak some French, she brightened up and immediately stopped speaking English), even though her first language was Swiss German. She didn’t object whatsoever to speaking what was to her a third language (presumably Swiss and High German came first and second), but she did resent the idea of needing to communicate in a language that was completely foreign to her country, in her own country. I suspect that she wouldn’t have minded the need to converse in English in an English-speaking country, as her English seemed to be reasonably good; the issues for her seemed to be comfort and national identity, not a lack of ability.

  • avatar

    We currently seem to be in a strange phase where every single car has it’s own completely different lamps, grille, side glass etc. and yet they all blend together. No manufacturer seems to be able to differentiate it’s cars from the others, especially in the SUV/CUV category. Another danger of building block technique is distributing an annoying trait across a whole line up of cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Again it’s a great tradeoff. Thousands of people have the same problems, so the incentive for an aftermarket fix is big enough.

      Imagine it’s 2020.. Ford has sold 500,000 modular Falconators and at ~50,000 miles they all develop a weird rattle.

      Not under warranty, but here comes a smart guy with a $10 fix and he ends up on an Infomercial at night showing everyone how to fix their Falconator in 6 simple steps.

  • avatar

    Something else to consider.. I believe most electric vehicles are already designed and built this way.. And they still cost way too much…

    Imagine how the EV market will do if everyone goes modular and the ICE rides drop in price by 1/3rd or 1/2.

    Probably not a good time to invest in the EV supply chain..

    • 0 avatar

      EV aren’t build this way except in the way that most car makers have only one model. But having all the colors as long as as it is black isn’t the same as having all the colors.

      EV also share a lot with ICE cars so a saving in an ICE will also be a saving in an EV

  • avatar

    The nuclear power industry is trying to do something like that. The Westinghouse AP1000 is built from modules and the ones they are building in Georgia are essentially the same as what is being built in China – there should be some extra safety features on account of what happened in Fukushima. But those were GE reactors which are more standard than the other brands. Now we have the worry about 20+ reactors that are just like Fukushima in this country. I guess that is the bad part about standardization.

    • 0 avatar

      I would suspect that none of those “20+ reactors that are just like Fukushima in this country” are situated where the ocean can wash right over their electrical power supplies in case of a tsunami.

      • 0 avatar

        Fortunately, no such US plant is in the same tsumani vulnerable area. Standardization did help here as one of the things GE reactors now have is the “hardened vent” that might (?) have helped at Fukushima. Once one hardened vent was figured out for 1 facility, it could easily be retrofitted to plants of the same type and brand.

        The AP1000 is supposed to have modular parts so that it would take maybe 4-5 years to build a nuclear power station instead of the 10+ years it used to. Current plants are more different than alike and replacement parts often have to be custom made, driving up the expense.

  • avatar

    I recall when round headlamps were the norm and square headlamps though new were still inexpensive and at the yard de la used parts we gave away the head lights as a good will gesture since there were many hard-working yet still impoverished folks surrounding us.

    The “modern” “basic” head lamps where merely an internal bulb can be replaced without the need to replace the entire heal light can be a cost saver as well as reducing wastage.

    Standardization where practical and possible is a wonderful thing.

    Standardized shantys for the working poor to perhaps make hovels more affordable for the working-poor whose ranks are growing.

  • avatar

    Given that we’re all reading this with standardized module-based electronics, I’m kinda surprised this idea is met with so much skepticism. While, yeah, there are upper limits as to how far you can go, you could do all sorts of good with internals in module form.

  • avatar

    Bertel and B&B – why are not Nissan and Renault standardizing together? Politics? Different market needs?

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      I wouldn’t put my money in that they’re not “standardizing together”. Quite the contrary, I’d put some money (and surely win some more) in that some standardization has already happened, with huge benefits for the Alliance.

  • avatar

    Does this approach necessitate unibody construction? It will be awful hard to convince the buyers of the world’s most popular single model annually that BoF isn’t needed when they advertise based on the properties of those frames.

  • avatar
    Hildy Johnson

    “One indicator of the much higher granularity of the Volkswagen kits: Volkswagen specifically said that the kits allow them to design and built low volume cars quickly and reasonably. Nissan on the other hand stops using the CMF architecture if a car is built less than 5,000 times a year.”

    So are we to believe that, given this ‘much higher granularity’, Volkswagen is now going make cars that sell much less than 5,000 times a year? Sounds unlikely.

    A valid comparison needs two numbers, not just one.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure they do. Bentley, Lambourghini, Bugatti, Audi’s. The R8 and the Gallardo share a platform as does the Phaeton and the Bentley’s. I have no idea what’s underneath the Veyron. Since they couldn’t make money at a million a pop probably something custom.

      The biggest problem that VW has is with its subs. That’s why there is a pernicious problem with only a few subsystems on a continuous basis. Wiring harness for the ignition system, window regulators, glovebox hinges. It’s also why they’ve gotten better each generation. They finally engineer their way out of it.

  • avatar

    “Both Volkswagen and Nissan interestingly talk about a 30 percent cost reduction. Don’t think prices will drop because of this.”

    Is it really necessary to tell your savvy readership (maybe I give us too much credit) that, most regrettably, the manufacturers have found a reason not to pass along the cost savings? Perhaps it was preventive medicine. If you hadn’t typed it, we’d probably all be ranting about how cost savings would never get passed along.

    I see the manufacturers have scapegoated CAFE for cost inflation. Not my favorite program, but and adorable excuse, to be sure. Volkswagen is using MQB to democratize superfluous options……but the auto industry as a whole will be using it to combat CAFE expenses? I’m Ron Burgundy?

    Car manufacturers: the new record companies. In another half-decade, after they’ve been busted for price-fixing, the auto manufacturers will lobby Congress to fine people for car-sharing and carpooling.

    • 0 avatar

      “…manufacturers have scapegoated CAFE for cost inflation.”

      The manufacturers have always, and probably will always do that visavis anything that forces them to improve the efficiency, safety, or durability of their product (despite the fact that the cost associated with such regulations more or less hits each manufacturer equally.)

      The price of cars just kept rising despite the fact that CAFE standards stopped rising about 20 years ago.

  • avatar

    As far as styling goes they already seem to use a “standardized” practice.

  • avatar

    So, what will this do for Volkswagen’s reliability and repairability?

    Volkswagen’s doing fine in most respects, and I like the looks of their designs — but I got burned so badly on my 2001 Jetta that I cannot afford to own a Volkswagen vehicle after the warranty expires, and I’m not likely to buy again anyway. Put a 150k-mile warranty on a Jetta Sportwagen TDI or an A4 TDI, though, and we’ll talk.

    Either that, or make it super-easy and super-cheap to replace parts, like the Grumman LLV. I’ll take either extreme.

  • avatar

    Didn’t Steven Lang state that prices have dropped about 30% over a time spanning the 90’s to the mid 2000’s. Also the Eagle Vision post mentioned how that car was $40,000 plus in todays dollars. I do not think cars are getting more expensive.

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