Late engineering changes are the last things a manufacturer wants in its vehicle development programs. They cause disruptions throughout the system, down to multiple layers in the supply chain. The result is often production delays and increased costs.
That's the conventional wisdom. Every automaker has "diamond-hard points" to freeze key aspects of vehicle design and engineering. And once a new vehicle is on sale, OEMs typically leave further minor changes for the next model changeover.
Hyundai, however, has a different approach. Known for its frugal product-development operations, Korea's largest automaker follows its own rule, annunciated by Charles Bang, director of the Quality Management Division: "Don't let problems carry over until the next model year."
That philosophy has been broadened to mean that, of course, quality/safety/reliability issues have to be dealt with promptly. But even seemingly small product issues involving customer satisfaction should not necessarily wait for a major changeover. But how can this approach be "frugal" and not delay vehicle introductions or increase costs?
Hyundai's answer is a combination of written and unwritten methodology, according to Bang. He explained the company uses a "drive defects to zero" mantra with both a statistical approach to problem identification and a companywide "get it done" attitude.
There is an early-warning system for product problems that uses a worldwide reporting network, which daily delivers detailed information for Hyundai to rapidly analyze a potential issue. The data sourcing, routing, and method of analysis permit Hyundai to be able to take a global view, even if an issue appears to be localized.
Although Hyundai considers the exact methodology to be proprietary, Bang said it has enabled the company to respond quickly. And the faster the response, the fewer the vehicles that have to be fixed, the fewer the defective parts that have to be scrapped, he observed.
Last-minute design changes for new models are the most difficult, because they involve brand-new parts that have just gone through all the required quality, reliability, and durability (QRD) testing—a major investment in time and expense. However, in October 2009, Hyundai saw a clear dislike for the gated transmission shifter among attendees at U.S. clinics for the 2011 Sonata, noted Michael Deitz, manager of product planning for Hyundai Motor America (HMA).
The issue surprised HMA planners because the design was already in use on what were perceived as competitive models, Deitz noted. However, the evidence was strong and the new Sonata was key to company product plans. HMA asked the parent company for a change to a straight-line shifter. That would be a difficult task because the car was scheduled to go into production in late December, and at the U.S. plant.
However, the Korean company was convinced by the clinic reports, and committed to make the change, which required redesign of the console indicator, base bracket, shift lever and its lock button, lever boot and two specific lever knobs (to cover trim levels). Parts were redesigned quickly, but the change also required 30 QRD tests, which were not completed until December.
In the interim, however, mock-up parts were installed for an auto show reveal. The new parts went into production in Korea and supplies were air-freighted to the U.S. in time for start of production. The change was not cost-free, of course. But it was affordable because it didn't delay and increase the more significant expense of the vehicle launch.
Last-minute body redesign
While functional changes are difficult, significant exterior styling revisions can be more so, explained Casey Hyun, Hyundai's creative design manager. But the company has executed exterior changes without a product delay or excessive cost, he noted, even after the design seemed to be frozen.
Hyun cited the fourth-generation Elantra as an example. In late December 2005, the vehicle seemingly was finished. The styling team was ready to move on to the next project, when the required approvals came back negative for the rear of the car. There were only five months to the May 2006 on-sale date.
Design chief Hyun reassembled his team. Their first step was to decide: Are the comments fair? The team agreed they were. Next step: Do we need a small change or a big one?
They identified the primary problem area at the rear bumper. Hyun told the group, "Let's see what we have to do." Potentially affected suppliers were brought into the assignment.
The team set two priorities—first, satisfy the styling issues and second, minimize effects on parts, particularly those supplier-sourced. The body dies were completed so the design team looked for ways to resolve the styling issues without requiring new dies—a potential cause of quality issues, a production delay, and increased cost so late in the program.
There were cutaway modifications to the existing dies that could be made, which would raise or lower surfaces and move some surface lines by 20-30 mm (approximately one inch). The relatively minor modifications could produce dramatic differences in appearance. That approach drew the team's focus.
Within a week, the team agreed on restyling steps, based on the cutaway modifications, and confirmed that they could be executed without creating problems on other surfaces or affecting parts clearances. Within two weeks (including long weekends), the redesigned rear end was ready for final top management review, Hyun recalled. It was approved.
Much of Hyundai engineering has been described as done on an "over the transom basis," that is, each completed job is "tossed over the transom" to the person next in the development process. This approach might appear to be counter-productive vs. a strong team system in which everyone is continuously in the loop as each does his job.
A senior engineering manager at Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center near Ann Arbor, MI, told AEI there is an important but subtle difference. He said Hyundai puts an emphasis on the quality and effectiveness of meetings at the start, so everyone knows exactly what to do.
The result, he said, is you have a strong team and a lot fewer meetings taking up your time along the way. "Meetings are to make decisions, not to see if everyone is working," the engineer added.
Not everyone can work within the demands of Hyundai's flexible system, he admitted. "You have to fit in," he explained, "and that includes the willingness to work with the team to make necessary changes, even when they involve extra effort and you already have your regular work schedule."
However, those with a strong get-it-right attitude also are among those willing to do the work quickly when necessary, the engineer noted. This has made "doing it at Hyundaispeed" a company motto. Inasmuch as Hyundai's product-quality scores also have been rising, to date the overall approach seems to have been successful.