Those wobbly cubicle walls can be big barriers to seeing and learning about the world, a place rife with people who ultimately buy the vehicles that engineers create.
"The best way to get that understanding of your customers and their market is to simply go and see," Robert Sump, Vice President of Component Engineering for the Nissan Technical Center North America, said during the SAE 2008 World Congress "Globalization Is 24/7" session in the AVL Technology Leadership Theater.
Sump said the education can be in-depth—such as investing in an overseas research and development center—or it can be "as simple as a week-long business trip. How you approach it depends on how important the market is to you and to what level you're willing to commit to be successful in that market."
The "go and see" practice gives engineers an understanding of how customers in different regions use a vehicle. For instance, "in Kuwait, temperatures can reach 50° to 55°C. It's not uncommon for the customer to sit for one to two hours in a vehicle idling condition in different situations," Sump said.
Really understanding customer needs, vehicle usage, and other unique aspects is information that needs to be shared. "Go and see with the mindset of understanding the business vision and developing a strategy to achieve it—doing what is necessary to make sure that your engineers understand the market and taking an active role in the process," Sump suggested to engineering managers.
At the start of development for the eighth-generation Honda Accord sedan, engineers went on road trips. "We visited many countries including the U.S., China, Thailand, and Japan," said Chitoshi Yokota, Operating Officer and General Manager of Product Development for Honda R&D in Japan.
The latest Accord, which is sold in 93 countries, was developed primarily at Honda's R&D Center in Tochigi, Japan. "In the styling stage, we brought the final clay model to the U.S. to confirm how the styling would look in daylight and under the street lights in the U.S. A decision was made to use this styling in all countries," said Yokota.
In the design stage, engineers used 3D modeling to simulate the crash performance and help devise an optimal vehicle structure. "We calculated the crash absorption energy and designed the body so that the car would produce the best results in the crash tests required by each country. Although stiffeners are added in certain locations for some countries, the same basic body is used across the world," said Yokota.
The current Accord is manufactured in seven countries. "First mass production began at a factory in Japan, and the problems identified in the Japanese factory were then reflected to mass production in the U.S. We adopted 590 grade high-strength steel because it is the most common on a global basis, including Asian countries and China," Yokota said.
Parts are sourced independently on a regional basis. "In Asia, the total volume of a given part is produced in one country. It is then supplied to the other countries building Accord. In the U.S., most parts are purchased in North America. The percentage of imported parts on Japan-made Accords has been increasing gradually in line with our strategy to produce parts at centralized locations in Asia. China is the largest source of imported parts to Japan," said Yokota.
Accord is available with five types of engines, each with two types of transmissions, throughout the world. "There are eight to 10 different emission categories in the world, and each engine meets the regulations in each country," said Yokota.
Around the world, General Motors Powertrain has 9000 engineers handling assignments in 24 engineering centers, according to Daniel Hancock, Vice President of Global Engineering for General Motors Powertrain. "GM has state-of-the-art (engineering) development centers that meet future product technology testing requirements, decrease product development time, and support global data sharing," said Hancock.
Two of the powertrain engineering development centers—in Pontiac, MI, and in Turin, Italy—are new facilities. The Turin center includes 15 engine test cells and one chassis emissions cell. In July 2008, the center in Pontiac officially opened. GM Powertrain completed partial upgrades to engineering development centers in Korea, China, Germany, and France, and partial upgrades are in process at engineering development centers in Sweden; Brazil; Milford, MI; and Castleton, IN.