PARIS — Considering its expense and the fact that it is the linchpin of a new strategy aimed at chopping product development times in half and saving more than $130 million (FF 1 billion) per vehicle program, you'd think Renault SA would be eager to show off its gleaming new technology center to the world.

Instead, the French automaker has chosen to be rather secretive about its giant Technocentre, one of the largest and most expensive building complexes in Europe. It cost $725 million (FF5.5 billion) to build and houses most of its engineering and design staffs, which were formerly dispersed in as many as 50 different locations. Officially completed in 1998, it nonetheless continues to grow. Originally slated to bring together 7,500 specialists from various disciplines, 9,000 currently work here, and two thousand more are expected to be transferred from other operations during the next several years.

As Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. strive to share 10 common platforms and jointly purchase 70% of their components (compared with 30% now), the Technocentre's role promises to grow even more.

A spokeswoman says Renault hasn't been actively trying to keep the press out, but says because most of the complex's business involves future product development, there is little to show the media.

Even so, we jumped at the chance to tour the massive facility when the Invest in France Agency, one of the country's economic development groups, pulled a few strings and arranged for WAW to take a tour.

Located at Saint Quentin en Yvelines, west of Paris, the giant facility “sits at the center of gravity of other key Renault sites.”

It's built on the same idea as the former Chrysler Corp.'s Chrysler Technology Center (CTC) in Auburn Hills, MI: platform engineering. Renault's Technocentre takes all the people involved in the development of a new vehicle — designers, engineers, manufacturing people and purchasing agents — and puts them in the same place so they can easily communicate and develop new products simultaneously, rather than having one group work on the new product and then pass it off to the next.

You don't have to have everyone in one building for it all to work, but it helps, and Renault is hoping the Technocentre will enable it to get all of its product development programs down to 36 months and then 24 months a couple of years later, saving $130 million on each new program along the way.

One of Renault's newest models, the Laguna (not fully developed at the Technocentre) took 42 months to develop, while its predecessor took 58 months from concept to production. The first model to make it to production in less than 36 months is the Renault Trafic model, sources say.

Designed specifically so that thousands of people can work together efficiently, the Technocentre features huge pedestrian walkways to encourage meetings. Plus, workplaces are designed to be modular, extendable and adaptable, so they can be moved and evolve along with their projects. The complex also is organized around three main focal points:

  • The Advance Precinct. This section features a huge stepped layout bordered by a lake, and is what a visitor sees first. Housing 1,700 people, it extends northwards on three levels and southwards on five levels. The area is devoted to the upstream functions of vehicle design and houses preparatory platform teams, design studios, modeling workshops and the data processing center. Administrative and reception services for the entire establishment also are here, along with a conference center, restaurant and a training and documentary research center.

  • The Hive. Considered the heart of the Technocentre, it dominates with its 100 ft. (30m) height and houses 4,100 people. It brings together projects and their platform teams, the expert functional units in vehicle engineering and the research department. The whole is adjustable, open and accessible in order to encourage communication. The lowest level is engineering offices. At ground level, parts and sub-assemblies take shape and are subjected to validation tests. At the center, three interconnected “patios” form the “Arcade,” the central artery of the site, housing four restaurants, a bank, insurance office, conference rooms, information areas and a competitive analysis center.

    In other words, in the hive, project teams from the four design zones for a future vehicle (exterior, interior, underbody and engine compartment) are vertically “stacked” on three floors, and surrounding them are functional specialists who provide expertise and technical advice.

  • The prototype build center. This is an extension of the Hive and is the conclusion of the process of product development. In its workshops, 600 specialists build the prototypes that represent the final phase of a project. They are capable of making one or two operating prototypes a day, serving to validate all the chosen technical solutions, both for the vehicle and the manufacturing process.

These three focal points then are backed up by a series of technical buildings including:

  • The Labs — A facility dedicated to the study of materials and surface treatments.

  • The Diapason — Equipped with technical halls, test beds and simulation areas, it is designed to test and validate the solutions developed by the engineering departments. It also carries out quality studies on vehicles.

  • The powerhouse — This building produces the energy needed by the entire complex.

  • The logistics hub — A building for storing and keeping track of high-turnover items.

  • The vehicle maintenance center — Responsible for servicing company and staff vehicles.

It's too soon to tell how much of an impact this facility ultimately will have on Renault's bottom line, but one thing is certain: This is one company that is not afraid to invest in its future.