Ford Motor Co.'s Ka, Puma and new '99 Mercury Cougar are turning heads with their crisp New Edge design. But as this new styling trend takes hold at Ford, one important group of critics has yet to be heard from: the people responsible for making all those interesting edges and creases in the metal. Is manufacturing on edge over New Edge?

It wouldn't be surprising if it were.

Historically, manufacturing folks and designers have been about as chummy as the Hatfields and McCoys. If you were a production person, designers were considered scum buckets in double-breasted suits who constantly conspired to make your life miserable. If you were a designer, the metal benders were people with grease on their wingtips that shot down every good idea you ever had with the simple phrase: "We can't make that."

So one would expect a dramatic and potentially widespread change such as New Edge design to be met with somewhat restrained enthusiasm by the manufacturing camp.

Surprisingly, John Fleming, chief engineer-stampings and structures and Abhay (Abe) Vadhavkar, man-ager-stamping support at Ford's Vehicle Operations, give New Edge two thumbs up - even though it isn't making their lives any easier.

The sharp angles and tight radii that define New Edge are not easy to form - especially when using today's stiff, ding-resistant steels - Mr. Fleming says, but he's not complaining. "We tend to take it as a challenge. We all like cars, and when a new design looks good, there's a real desire to go out and do it."

Darryl C. Martin, director of Automotive Applications at the American Iron and Steel Institute, says many automakers are producing vehicles with crisper lines and sharper edges. They aren't extraordinarily difficult to form out of steel, he says. "It's how you tip the die so you can make the draw and then withdraw the male part of the die . . . but generally (automakers) are pretty slick with most of that stuff."

And in fact, some stamping experts say the edges and creases involved with New Edge aren't much different from those used for the squarish designs from the '60s and '70s.

"Overall, it's not a whole lot different. It requires us to be more precise in terms of die manufacturing," says Mr. Vadhavkar. In fact, the entire vehicle body must be manufactured to much closer tolerances to make sure everything lines up correctly, he adds.

Sophisticated technology such as computer simulation, virtual reality die design and new Ford tool-and-die manufacturing facilities get some of the credit for the general lack of manufacturing angst, but Messrs. Fleming and Vadhavkar agree the most important element in this sea-change is the involvement of manufacturing early in the design phase.

Automakers and suppliers have been giving lip service to this concept for at least two decades with fancy terms such as "simultaneous engineering." But Mr. Fleming says stamping folks and designers really started working together closely after the implementation of Ford 2000 in late 1994.

Now manufacturing feasibility experts literally work side by side with designers as they create new products. And besides warning designers to stay away from difficult-to-manufacture concepts, they also encourage them to stretch the envelope when they can.

"We're learning from each other. We make those kinds of decisions every day," says Mr. Vadhavkar. He does admit, though, that there was a time not too long ago when manufacturing thought an easy-to-make square metal box was the most perfect of all automotive shapes.

Manufacturing engineers at Flat Rock, MI, where body panels are being stamped for the new Cougar, have another benefit as well: a wealth of experience. Ka and Puma body panels already have been in production for several years. Numerous European manufacturing experts with New Edge experience now are transferring their knowledge here, says Mr. Fleming. "We run a global organization," he explains.