When designers at Ford’s product development center sat down to sketch out the new 2011 Explorer, the team had a clear objective: Deliver a sleek, modern package, while maintaining the rugged looks of an SUV. But no matter what direction they took the new design, there was one thing that could not be compromised: craftsmanship.
“Every detail of the new Explorer was scrutinized,” said Peter Bejin, Ford craftsmanship supervisor. “Craftsmanship - the look, the style, the feel of a well-built vehicle - is a critical step in the design process. It is the key differentiator in a competitive and crowded marketplace.”
It’s so important that Ford formed a dedicated group of product designers and engineers to focus solely on craftsmanship. The Global Craftsmanship team, based both in Europe and the U.S., worked to ensure that every part, seam, button and dial is perfectly matched so that the vehicle is well crafted, aesthetically pleasing and functional.
The new Explorer’s craftsmanship invites its customers to perceive the vehicle with their senses. A consistent and harmonious combination of visual, audible and olfactory characteristics must exceed customers’ expectations.
“It’s like an orchestra, where many instruments make up the harmonious whole, the precise and pleasant sensory elements in a Ford vehicle work together to create a holistic balance,” said Bejin. “This was our mission statement as we developed the new Explorer.”
The craftsmanship process begins very early in the vehicle’s development. Designers start upstream by looking at all their data in the virtual world on a computer screen long before the vehicle is seen in its full form as a prototype.
Closing the gap
When the vehicle body is first built in a prototype phase, quality tests begin. On the Explorer, engineers used a highly accurate laser wand to check the placement and measurement of more than 500 connection points on the vehicle body to make sure the full physical design of the body matched the virtual computer version.
“In the prototype phase, we examine and scrutinize every touch point on the vehicle that our engineers have deemed important to quality,” said Matt Machala, tooling/dimensional control engineer. “This is so we can trace any quality issues before the vehicle leaves the body shop.”
Machala and his crew also measure the pressure and sealings on the vehicle doors, making sure they open and shut firmly and correctly. They measure the margin of fit of the body panels, assuring that the seams and gaps where parts come together are no wider than 3.7 millimeters or about the width of two stacked nickels, Machala said.
“That’s the kind of thing that customers really notice,” Machala explained. “It’s not just about aesthetics; they want a vehicle that’s put together well.”
A key aspect of perceived quality is sound, or the absence of sound. A noisy interior cabin caused by wind or other external disturbances upset the sense of sound. Ford has gone to great lengths to minimize wind noise by using high-tech devices that can pinpoint noise from wind and other sources entering the vehicle.
One unsung hero in this process is an air leakage test performed at different stages throughout the production of the new Explorer. Eliminating air leaks begins with virtual design checks on the computer and then continues with validation tests after the body has been built.
To test for air leaks, engineers must first remove air from the vehicle’s interior cabin. A test vehicle is randomly selected and pulled from the assembly line after it’s been through the paint process, but before its trim parts are added. All of the openings to the interior cabin of the vehicle are sealed with sheets of Plexiglas that match the shape of the opening to create an airtight seal. A vacuum-like machine with hose attached is secured to a hole in the Plexiglas through which air is either suctioned from or pumped in to the cabin, depending on the test.
Engineers then crawl through the cabin using a stethoscope type listening device to check for air coming in or out of the vehicle’s cabin. They also use a mini-camera on a cord that enables them to look into spaces otherwise inaccessible. This process is repeated once more once the vehicle is fully assembled.