As an unabashed Star Trek fan, I’m continually fascinated by the Borg. Their mission, according to Startrek.com, was the “attainment of “perfection” through the forcible assimilation of diverse sentient species, technologies, and knowledge.” In the mind of the Borg, their entire species became stronger by gathering diverse inputs and eliminating variation. This is strikingly similar to our concept of economies of scale, which is the reduced cost per unit as the output increases. This is only possible when variations are eliminated. As the Borg learned and assimilated more species and information, they adjusted their norm to become more effective, but still retained a uniformity across the Collective. This didn’t allow for individual experiences, but provided each member of the Collective with a standard experience that was considered to be sufficient.
There are many examples of this sort of standardization in our modern society, especially in the automotive world. One of my favorite examples of this is the Saab 9-2X “Saabaru,” which was a Subaru Outback Sport with a few minor tweaks and some Saab badges on it. The Subaru BR-Z and Scion FR-S are also great examples of companies sharing parts (or entire cars) to reduce costs. One aspect of the automotive world that’s skirted this trend for a long time, however, is the car’s interior. While some interior pieces made by the same manufacturer can be found in multiple models (steering wheels, navigation units, door controls, vents, and HVAC controls), a large percentage of interior parts are specifically designed for the model or class of vehicle in which they appear. Ford has an ambitious plan to change that, however, and as the adage goes, “resistance is futile.”
Over Thanksgiving week, I spent more than 30 hours in my car traveling to see family. I can say with complete certainty that the seat is one of the most important parts of any car. Like a good partner, it comforts you when the going gets rough. Seats can also vary quite a bit: I had a 2003 Honda Civic Si for 10 years, and that seat kept me comfortable on some very long drives. But one of my exes had a non-Si ’03 Civic that gave me a backache in less than 20 minutes when driving it. Ford has decided to tackle this problem head-on by introducing a uniform seat that will be used in 95% of the cars in their lineup, everything from subcompacts to pickups to luxury cruisers. In keeping with the One Ford plan that was introduced in 2007, I’m going to call this the Ford “One Seat.”
To look at the design, you might not find it visually impressive. It’s essentially just the bones of the seat. The final product is the fitted with the various components that determine functionality based on the model in which it is destined to reside. There can be a wide array of options (heating, air conditioning, adjustability, airbags, etc.) that will make the seats appear different, but these devices fit into engineered parts of the frame, which makes the whole process more efficient. According to Ford engineer Jonathan Line, this should cut down on seat costs by 5% to 10%, which becomes significant when you’re building millions of vehicles.
Historically, Ford has relied upon outsourcing for components like seats. This meant that they were dependent upon supplier quality and that seats had to be re-engineered to fit each application. This variability meant that they either faced costs for design work or an ill-suited seat. Ford was eager to manage this part of the customer experience in-house, but they knew that their staff was ill-suited to handle a task of this scale. According to The Detroit Free Press:
“‘We weren’t competitive,’ said Jonathan Line, a Ford engineer who was part of the small group that coordinated the purchase of seats from suppliers. ‘We needed to break from the pack and take control of our own destiny.'”
The solution was to re-enforce the strengths of their team by hiring designers with the appropriate skill sets that would allow for a first-generation design to be produced internally. This design was focused on meeting all of the requirements for the North American market, which still represents Ford’s largest market. It proved to be quite successful, and was refined to meet global standards for the second generation, which debuted on the 2013 Fusion and Escape models.
For those of you considering a Mustang GT350, but are worried that the seat from a Lincoln Continental just won’t do the trick during aggressive driving, fear not! Ford won’t be using this architecture in their performance models for now. However, you can bet the lessons learned by this universal seat architecture will make their way into those cars eventually. According to Dan Ferretti, Ford’s Global Engineering Leader who has been helping to lead seat development efforts, “It is one of the lightest seats in the world [the total weight of seat is said to be down 17%]. Others are benchmarking us.”
Ford’s plan seems to be succeeding, and they plan to have the One Seat in 4 million vehicles by 2016. It might not be a Borg Collective, but its clear that assimilation is already underway.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.