Common parts cut car costs
By Michelle Krebs
Published October 27, 2006
Detroit automakers suffer a $2,400-per-vehicle profit disadvantage
compared to Japan's top automakers, according to a new study, but
contrary to what company officials say, it isn't solely the result of
uncontrollable health care costs.
Laurie Harbour-Felax, president of the newly formed Detroit-based
consulting firm Harbour-Felax Group, and her father, Jim Harbour, were
frustrated hearing that health care costs were to blame for Detroit's
What they found was, indeed, skyrocketing health care costs
accounted for the bulk -- $1,500 -- of the $2,400 profit gap. But the
remainder was made up of some items that the automakers could control.
They found the controllable portion falls into three major areas:
revenue per vehicle, labor issues, and product design and parts
"Revenue per vehicle is a huge issue," said Mrs. Harbour-Felax in
an interview. "In 2005, Detroit automakers instituted employee pricing
programs and huge incentives that killed them."
She notes that when GM dropped employee pricing, lowered incentives
and shifted to value pricing, the profit picture turned around
The study examined labor issues, such as absenteeism, relief time
of workers, the number of job classifications, and quantified what
those factors cost automakers. It was several hundred dollars per
vehicle, depending on the manufacturer. The information in the study
certainly will be used by automakers to negotiate their national
contracts with the UAW, which expire in September 2007.
The third part of the profit gap is in product design and product
commonality, or the lack of commonality. "I believe that's the biggest
area of opportunity," said Mrs. Harbour-Felax, who visited 50 supplier
plants to get a sense of how well manufacturers are doing in
commonizing parts -- or not.
Detroit automakers have talked the commonizing game for 20 years,
but, she said, organizational structures, corporate cultures and
executive reward systems have restricted its expansion. The companies
have restructured and could enjoy significant savings. She said GM has
done the best job of commonizing globally. But one Detroit automaker
that she wouldn't name still has 81 different side-view mirrors. Some
are used in tiny quantities, whereas 10 different mirrors are used on
80 percent of the vehicles the manufacturer sells.
"We estimated $1,000 to $1,500 a car can be saved by Detroit
manufacturers. That's billions of dollars. And I actually think that's
conservative," Mrs. Harbour-Felax said.
By comparison, Mrs. Harbour-Felax learned by visiting supplier
plants for the study that Toyota saved $1,000 per car in the past five
years by commonizing platforms globally and commonizing parts that the
customer doesn't see. For instance, Toyota has only seven different
firewalls -- the insulation in the engine compartment that lines the
wall to the passenger compartment. They are identical in shape, all of
them. The only difference is in size. That means, the parts that hang
to the firewall are common as well.
"The savings through the supply chain can be exponential by
commonizing." She said. Can Detroit ever close the gap with the
"I'm cautiously optimistic," she said. "They've all put strategies
in place -- now they need to execute the strategy. They can't falter in
that or they'll struggle. And they've got to do it faster."
However, she added, the gap will never be closed entirely as long
as the U.S. government stays out of health care and exchange rates.
"The Big Three can do everything known to man, but the yen will still
drive the gap," she said. In September alone, she noted, the exchange
rate went from 113 yen to 118 yen to the U.S. dollar. "That five-point
change created $4 billion that went back to Japanese automakers. It was
money in their pocket that can go into new product."
Meanwhile, Mrs. Harbour-Felax's consulting firm will focus on
transforming small-to-middle-size suppliers and prepare them for the
future. "I see the next five to 10 years being make-or-break for the
supply base. I want to help them gain perspective and understanding on
how the automakers think, breathe and do things so they are prepared,"