A decade ago, the word "collaboration" was on everyone’s lips as the industry looked for new ways to save cost and speed time to market. Even companies that were arch competitors were joining forces out of economic realism. Collaboration was a pragmatic strategy as long as the shared goals were understood by all involved—and kept clear throughout the process, which could be awkward at first for those charged with making it happen.
"The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other," advised Tom Stallkamp, Chrysler’s purchasing boss who enjoyed the best supplier relations of the Detroit Three during the 1990s.
The 2002 deal between GM and Ford to co-develop a new 6-speed automatic transaxle for front-drive applications turned out to be a landmark in collaborative ventures. It wasn’t easy convincing the large transmission-development groups of each OEM to play nice and work together, but that’s what they did and production began in 2006. Since investing a combined $720M in manufacturing assets to support the new transmission, Ford’s 6F and GM’s 6T70/6T75 have been produced in multiple plants at high volume and quality in nearly 30 vehicle applications to date.
As SAE readers know, creating and producing new transmissions is one of the most expensive activities in product development. Experts in this area tell me an all-new planetary automatic will cost approximately $90M in ER&D, plus another $600M to $700M for production equipment able to handle output of 500,000 units per year. And if you need new bricks and mortar, add $200M. There’s not much change left from a billion dollars. And PD costs are expected to continue rising as the transmissions themselves become ever-more sophisticated.
That’s why the news that GM and Ford are again collaborating in the transmission-engineering arena is important. By the time this SAE Technology eNewsletter reaches you, the two automakers will be close to officially announcing their joint studies, development, and potential manufacture of a variety of new fuel-efficient transmissions. Independently GM and Ford have been investigating and developing new 8-, 9-, and 10-speed automatics for front- and rear-drive car and truck applications. Perhaps the units farthest along will be completed as joint programs. Perhaps clean-sheet designs that combine the best ideas from each OEM are already under way. (When this article was written in late September, there was no word on how intellectual property will be addressed.)
Either way, the new GM-Ford collaboration limits both companies’ risk exposure while increasing the mutual benefits in production. Rather than having to purchase licenses from third-party powertrain suppliers as some competitors are doing, the world's second- and fourth-largest OEMs are maintaining this “core” powertrain technology in-house. Their combined scale will put considerable cost pressure on competitors. Their engineers again will have to “gang up” on the challenges ahead.