Ford & GM finally get their act together :

This year’s Detroit auto show is notable for its lack of pizzazz. On a day when an inch of snow snarled traffic throughout the metro area, the show itself seemed muffled by the precipitation. Hard to find this day were the made-for-TV unveilings of new models, extravagant and fanciful concept cart reveals, or exciting new models.

The lack of hoopla, which so dominated news coverage in the past, has allowed subtler and perhaps more significant stories to emerge. A big one is changes in the way new models are engineered. Process changes at Ford and new bookkeeping at General-Motors mean that small cars will be able generate a profit for these companies for the first time in decades.

At Ford, the new darling of the U.S. auto industry, product development chief Derrick Kuzak revealed that Ford’s new Global Production System has enabled it to shave eight to 14 months off the time needed to develop a new model and get it to production.

Reducing the number of running prototypes it builds for testing by half. That enables Ford to get a new model to market in well under three years. The means less work for engineers, and it allows the company to get closer to the needs and desires of its customers.

The production system wasn’t developed at Ford (F, Fortune 500) but adapted from Mazda, Ford’s Japanese partner. Input on computer engineering came from Volvo and on data management from Ford itself. Accompanying that acceleration in speed is a reduction in engineering effort. Ford has been able to cut its engineering forces by double digits by working globally, reducing complexity, and sharply cutting the number of variations to uses in identical parts. For instance, according to Kuzak, the contours in every Ford seat are now the same, whether the car is a Fiesta or a Taurus. That enables seat suppliers to commonize designs and parts.

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