Ford Motor Co.'s Automotive Components Div. (ACD) is bucking one trend and following another. The organization is turning its attention to its parent while its counterpart at General Motors Corp., Delphi Automotive Systems, is moving in just the opposite direction to limit its dependence on GM. At the same time, ACD bolsters its own testing capability with the opening of a new engineering test center in Dearborn, MI. "Prior to Ford 2000, we were somewhat more Delphi-like," says Ford Vice President and ACD General Manager Frank Macher. "Today we're more integrated into Ford. We're part of the product-development process now."

A new $32 million, 119,000-sq.-ft. (11,055-sq.-m) test facility will play a major role in that development process since it was designed for early phase engineering, prototyping and testing for instrument panels, consoles, door trim, bumpers and exterior lighting. It also can be used to test integrated plastic and trim, electronics and climate-control subsystems.

"Quality, cost and timing advantages are gained through an integrated subsystems approach to product engineering," says Mr. Macher. In addition to testing individual components, Ford validates entire subsystems at this new facility.

Among the many tests and simulations run at the lab, one is critical to future vehicle performance: the reliability labs where tested components are evaluated. "Key life tests support our 10-year, 150,000-mile (241,500 km) objective of useful life," says Pete Ross, the facility's director.

Other important pieces of test equipment include shakers of various sizes to find squeaks and rattles under a variety of conditions. Three small shaker tables test components. Four electrodynamic shakers and a trio of multi-axis shakers in environmental chambers put larger components and subsystems through their early paces under a variety of conditions: vibration, extreme hot and cold temperatures, humidity and sun load.

The cornerstone of the vibration and high-mileage lab is a four-post road simulator, also enclosed in an environmental chamber, into which full vehicles are driven for real-time testing.

"The most significant lab is the vibration and high-mileage durability lab, where we can duplicate the conditions of any test track in the world," says Mr. Ross. Entire systems can be tested on the four-poster shaker, which provides high value for the customer. It affords "better overall system performance, faster product development and lower cost because these systems can be tested together rather than separately," he adds.

Mr. Ross says the environmental chambers grow in importance as the industry moves away from seasonal tests at proving grounds in an effort to speed development time.

The two-story building also houses a laboratory devoted to materials, coatings and fastener development and a prototype shop to build early development models that will help shave weeks off the product development process, say ACD officials.

"The material, coating and fastener labs are important to get at the root cause of squeaks and rattles," says Mr. Ross. "We will be able to design them out before they occur."

Other equipment at the new Ford ACD test center includes a bumper lab with pendulum impact simulator, and a physical testing lab that exposes vehicles, subsystems and components to environmental conditions and load cycles to determine ability to function in extreme conditions. It also houses machine and model shops that convert laser scanner readings of clay models to Prototype parts. Mr. Ross estimates that the laser scanning capability can shave 25% to 75% off the time it takes to create prototypes.

"The new test center is a major tool in the reliability engineering effort and in the improvement in product quality," states Mr. Ross. "These facilities allow us to get a system right, up front, before full vehicle testing."

Ford, Engelhard continue testing new radiators

Hot off the testing news wire are the preliminary results of a joint "smog-destroying" radiator research project between Ford and Engelhard Corp., indicating the supplier's PremAir radiator coating technology won't have quite the environmental impact as originally hoped.

In April, Engelhard claimed its discovery -- which converts ozone passing through the radiators into oxygen -- would result in a bigger reduction in ozone than from all other suggested alternatives together, including electric cars and reformulated gasoline, if it was installed on all vehicles in metropolitan Los Angeles. Past the halfway point of a nine-month study aimed at commercializing PremAir, researchers estimate that if every vehicle in LA were equipped with a PremAir-coated radiator the area's ozone level could be reduced by only 0.04 parts per billion (ppb). Engelhard stock fell 16% following the announcement of the results.

"While these air quality improvements appear small, it's very small improvements we're chasing," says Haren Gandhi, who directs the joint project for Ford. "Cars are so clean today that virtually all new technologies like PremAir likely will provide incremental steps forward."

Other findings from the August-September study, during which three Ford Contours amassed a total of 30,000 (48,300 km) test miles in California and Michigan, include a lower-than-projected coating cost and that PremAir converted an average of 80% of the ozone moving through the radiator.