Automakers rapidly are moving toward a new era in vehicle architectures that promises lower costs, turn-on-a-dime manufacturing and shorter product-development lead times.

But is the new direction all it's cracked up to be? Will these modular platforms provide the purchasing advantage some expect, or is this new designed-in flexibility a simple case of over-engineering?

Industry insiders may be split on how much actually can be achieved, but the goal is clear: To create scalable architectures that share components across a wide range of model lines and allow nearly any vehicle, no matter what size, powertrain or body configuration, to be built at any manufacturing plant in the world.

The automaker that cracks that engineering code will be able to better match production with fickle consumer demand, create new spin-offs quickly and economically, command the lowest prices from suppliers and offer car buyers the market’s best bargains.

The problem? A litany of hurdles, engineers and analysts say, including varying safety and environmental laws around the world; sourcing challenges; vehicle-performance requirements; and, quite frankly, basic geometry.

“Everybody has wanted to do this before,” notes John Hoffecker, head of the automotive practice for consultant AlixPartners. “The reason they haven’t is it is very difficult to do.”

The concept of a global-scale, modular platform is nothing new. In the past two decades, automakers have been working hard to reduce the number of vehicle architectures in their lineups by stretching platforms to create longer-wheelbase models off the same set of mechanicals and sharing as many components as possible from one car to another.

What’s coming next, though, is an even more elastic approach that will allow track, as well as length to be varied. That will enable small cars, midsize sedans and uncompromising, family-sized CUVs all to be built on a single platform, maximizing both economies of scale and production flexibility.

Volkswagen may be the furthest along as it begins to spin products from its MQB architecture, set to underpin some 39 models covering eight size and market segments by 2019. But other automakers also have some high-volume global platforms in the works, and it’s unclear exactly how big a jump VW may have on its competition or whether too much has been spent on too little of an advantage.

Financial analysts and parts suppliers have been salivating at the cost-savings prospects ever since VW revealed plans for the MQB, which WardsAuto/AutomotiveCompass forecast data shows will cover production of more than 6 million units annually within the next six years.

Debuting with the latest Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf, the MQB ultimately will stretch from the B-class Polo to the D-segment Passat and even beyond to the expected CrossBlue 7-passenger CUV unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January. It will cover myriad brands, ranging from luxury-priced Audis to more mainstream VWs, Skodas and SEATs.

The key, VW officials say, is in making sure each vehicle on the MQB architecture is locked into the same basic engine-compartment configuration, with pedal position and the distance between the front wheels and front wall of the cockpit identical in every model to come.

“Then all that happens at the crash point is the same for all these vehicles,” Ranier Michel, vice president-marketing strategy for Volkswagen of America, says in an interview earlier this year. “The biggest part of car development, when it comes to money, is crashworthiness.”

Assembly sequences are identical from vehicle to vehicle, as are manufacturing machinery and welding and bonding processes, meaning any model can be built on any line at any plant in the world.

The concept also allows for quicker product development as future cars and trucks are derived from the existing platform.

“You take a little more time (engineering) in the beginning, but then (it) can be very fast in ramping up,” Michel says. “That’s the beauty of it. I see behind the scenes what we can work on now and what we are working on now – it’s phenomenal.”

Of course the “big goal,” the VWA executive says, is to “use as many components over as many cars as possible.”

With the economies of scale offered by a multimillion-unit platform, the German automaker could enjoy unprecedented pricing power.

“When you make that jump to those kinds of volumes…you’re spreading both the production capital as well as the development investment over that many units, so that is what drives down those per-unit costs,” says Dave Andrea, senior vice president-industry analysis and economics for the Original Equipment Suppliers Assn.

VW Not Alone on Modular Path

But while VW may be leading the charge toward scalable architectures, it is far from alone. Among those jumping on the bandwagon are Renault-Nissan, Volvo, Jaguar and, most recently, General Motors. Other automakers appear to be headed in the same general direction, as well, if not following the exact same path.

“The thing that everyone is going after now is increased flexibility in all three directions,” says Hau Thai-Tang, former chief engineer for Ford and now its head of purchasing. “So in longitudinal, with wheelbase and in the lateral.

“There’s a lot of benefit with that scale in terms of engineering savings, material-cost savings.”

Ford won’t merge its B- and C-model architectures as some competitors are doing, Thai-Tang says, but he points to its steady reduction in the number of platforms overall from 27 in 2007 to 15 today and on to a planned nine in 2015. By 2017, the automaker expects to average four different models in production at each assembly plant worldwide.

In the case of Renault-Nissan, development of a second flexible platform is well under way, following launch of its Common Module Family architecture for C/D-segment vehicles that is providing the basis for about 13 Renault and Nissan models.

This new platform, dubbed CMF-A, uses some of the same core principles as the CMF-CD but is aimed at smaller vehicles targeted primarily at emerging markets such as India beginning in 2015. A slightly larger CMF-B architecture is on deck as well, which could share key components with the CMF-A.

Jean-Michel Billig, executive vice president-engineering and quality, tells WardsAuto the CMF-A consists of five main modules: the engine compartment, front underbody, rear underbody, cockpit and electrical/electronic architecture.

Each of these major pieces could have up to three versions designed to accommodate different vehicle types and price points, allowing Renault-Nissan to choose from among the building blocks to produce a variety of models, from sedans and hatchbacks to wagons, pickups and multipurpose vehicles.

“You may have one to three different Lego pieces for each big module,” Billig says. “Then you will look at which is the best, the optimum combination, in order to address a given market. If you want to make an SUV, you may not have the same combination as if you want to address a sedan or a pickup or wagon.”

PSA Peugeot Citroen has a similar architecture under development called the Efficient Modular Platform 2, which reportedly will cover half its volume by 2014. It debuted with the new C4 Picasso, but also is to be shared with GM for a new Opel Zafira in 2017, if the tie-up between the two automakers goes forward as planned.

At September’s Frankfurt auto show, Volvo unveiled its Concept Coupe based on its upcoming Scalable Product Architecture that eventually will support all of the brand’s models above the 40-Series in size, beginning with a new XC90 CUV in 2014. Jaguar exhibited the CX-17 CUV concept derived from its aluminum-intensive IQAL platform that will underpin a number of diverse vehicles beginning in 2015.

Executives at Toyota, which has been among the leaders in applying common engineering across vehicle lines, have indicated even more parts-sharing is needed to remain competitive. Its TNGA platform that reaches the market next year with a new Prius ultimately will cover seven vehicle segments, replacing its current MC platform that spans just five, WardsAuto/Automotive Compass data shows.

Volkswagen’s flexible-architecture lineup isn’t limited to the MQB, either. It also has the New Small Family platform (PQ12) that supports its Up line of entry-level vehicles, the MLB that spawns Audis and other models with longitudinal-engine layouts and an upcoming sports-car platform that will be shared by multiple brands, including Porsche.

The list goes on. WardsAuto/AutomotiveCompass data show this year about a third of the top-volume platforms will cross four or more size segments. By 2019, that percentage will go to half, and those will span up to seven market segments.

“Most everybody at one level or another is going after this same belief,” Hoffecker says of scalable architectures.

Renault’s Billig agrees. “We have not started our thinking…yesterday. And, by the way, we are not the only one. Some of our competitors are thinking in the same way.”

Focus on Highest-Volume Market Sectors

Most of the focus is on the heart of the vehicle market, combining as much as possible among B-, C- and CD-platforms, which account for the bulk of global sales volume, Hoffecker says, adding it will continue to get tougher for smaller players to remain viable.

“If you’re in the classic B-segment, C-segment, D-segment of the world, having that scale advantage where you can really leverage the volume, leverage the suppliers in a different way…I think it gets harder and harder (for smaller automakers) to compete,” the AlixPartners consultant says.

That B-C sector is exactly where global giant GM is setting its sights with a new more flexible architecture, John Calabrese, head of global engineering, reveals in an interview with WardsAuto. The new architecture will consist of interchangeable front, rear and center sections, he says, a setup that sounds similar to Renault’s CMF-A and likely incorporates some of the same theories.

“We have a methodology around the powertrain business with cylinder sets, and we’re kind of looking at it with vehicle sets,” he says. “You start to put some stakes in the ground and say this is how we are going to architect the B- and C-segment vehicles. And I am going to have interchangeability between those.”

But skeptics question whether such extreme product flexibility being engineered-in at VW, Renault, GM and others is warranted – or even doable.

J.P. Morgan declared last December the MQB would “set a benchmark for auto manufacturing going forward.” But ever since original estimates predicted VW’s $70 billion MQB strategy would save €5 billion ($6.8 billion) over the first three years, financial analysts have been backing down.

Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton has declared potential savings from MQB “overhyped,” saying VW already is highly efficient and any further gains stemming from the new platform will be modest, not the 20% the automaker initially projected.

“There is absolutely no way a new platform can save 20% of the cost of a vehicle at VW’s level of scale,” he says in a report issued in March.

Some industry insiders long have been suspicious about how much parts sharing will be possible – or even desirable – with vehicles that vary significantly in track size or are positioned at opposite ends of the price spectrum. Can a €30,000 ($41,000) Volkswagen Passat really have much in common with a €10,000 ($13,500) Polo? Would Volkswagen really want it to?

“Either VW can engineer a Polo with Passat-level weight, rigidity and specifications or a Passat with Polo-grade components,” Warburton writes. “Most industry experts think VW will end up with a much-too-expensive small-car platform, with oversized parts.”

Because there are inconsistent definitions about what constitutes a single vehicle architecture and how common “common parts” really are, it will be awhile before anyone can say whether MQB, CMF-A and others are really game-changers or just sexier examples of a much slower platform evolution taking place industrywide.

“There is a little more flexibility going on,” Mark Chernoby, vice president-engineering for Chrysler, tells WardsAuto. “(But) you have to be careful. People like to use these dialogues that sound good to financial analysts and media (suggesting), ‛I’ve got a common platform that is now modular.’

“But if you put (some of today’s platform-sharing vehicles) on a hoist, they’re vastly different. You may find the front body structure and the engine compartment’s the same, but everything behind it is unique.”

Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson points across the floor of January’s Detroit auto show. “Go to that stand at Volkswagen and start looking at how many mirrors do they really have there,” he tells WardsAuto. “I can see they are all different from here. So at least they have no economy of scale of the mirrors.

“Let’s see the side doors – a huge investment in pressing tools. No economy of scale (there either). So maybe it is not that (cost-) effective as you believe.”

Regulations, Capacity Among Design Barriers

There certainly are limits, industry insiders admit, and challenges to truly common, global and scalable platforms are considerable.

Chief among them are the variety of global safety and emissions standards.

“You have new fuel-economy legislation in China, new fuel-economy legislation in Brazil,” notes Chernoby. “And guess what? The tests they run, the metrics they’ve come up with are different from the U.S. and Europe. And the U.S. and Europe aren’t the same.

“It is somewhat possible to try to (design) a vehicle that meets all these requests, but if you try chasing that, your weight can get out of control, which has an effect on fuel economy and performance.”

Global safety regulations are a heavy consideration when imagining new vehicle platforms, agrees Nand Kochhar, global chief engineer-safety and product development for Ford.

“The strategy in general is to design the platform for good safety performance and then tailor the top hat for meeting those regional needs,” he says, alluding to different cost, fuel-economy, emissions and customer requirements from one market to the next. “In addition to meeting the standards, we want to be competitive.”

The supply chain also presents hurdles to going common, although the economies-of-scale potential certainly has automakers seeing dollar signs.

A recent AlixPartners study estimates doubling production volumes off a single platform can slash non-recurring costs 10%-20% and trim recurring outlays 4%-8%, equating to several hundred dollars in savings per vehicle.

“Every jump up (in volume) gives you more leverage in talking with suppliers,” Hoffecker notes.

But in some regions, suppliers already have stretched capacity thin. In many cases, tooling up for these multimillion-unit platforms could require new investment, and that easily could eat away the potential savings.

“It used to be in the early part of the decade, most suppliers had extra capacity,” Chrysler’s Chernoby says. “What we’re running into now – and it’s not just a local U.S. problem, it’s a global problem – many suppliers have no capacity. In fact, they’re struggling to meet the capacity the industry is asking them for today.”

Even if capacity isn’t an issue, there is a point of diminishing returns on piece price.

“On average, most suppliers will tell you the sweet spot for scale is 200,000-300,000 parts,” Thai-Tang says. “That’s a typical plant size, three shifts a day, six days a week.”

That means it may not be productive to share many parts across B-, C- and D-segment vehicles, as is targeted with VW’s MQB.

“If you’re going to bridge from B- to D-car, chances are (the part) is designed for the most stringent requirement, which is typically the D-car,” the Ford executive says. “You’re going to carry that design cost into your B-car. And if there’s diminishing returns on scale, is that the right thing to do?”

Another barrier is the sheer complexity of planning multiple products for several brands, targeted at global markets and engineered, produced and launched over a span of many years. Add to that mix automakers partnering on vehicle development, such as GM with PSA, Renault-Nissan with Mercedes, Toyota with BMW and Fiat with Chrysler, and the formula gets even more complicated.

Like automakers, the supply chain also will have to get manufacturing operations up to speed. “The OE can only be as flexible as its supply base,” Andrea says. “And the OE can only be as responsive to market changes as their supply base is.”

Hoffecker says parts makers will need to have global organizations and strong account management to compete, and the challenges may be too big for some, accelerating merger and acquisition activity in the sector. Global footprints are required to win, he says.

“For suppliers, the challenge will be aligning with the right platforms to begin with, because in this new world, if you don’t put your eggs in the right basket, you may wind up with a whole lot of broken eggs.”

Platforms Can Be Stretched Only So Far

In addition, there are physical limitations to how much automakers can increase a platform in size and still use identical parts, engineers acknowledge.

“With a common architecture, I think the industry’s been good about having flexibility on width within 2-3 ins. (51-76 mm),” Chernoby says. “You can hold a lot of the car common and still vary that much. But anybody that tells you they’re varying 4, 5, 6 ins. (102-152 mm) in the car, then you should ask, ‛Show me what parts are common when you’re done.’”

It’s even more difficult to engineer common in an age when multiple powertrains are required, including hybrids and battery-powered, the Chrysler engineer notes. “The technological evolution under the hood with engines and transmissions is moving at one of the fastest paces we’ve ever seen. That is adding a lot of challenges for us in terms of holding that layout common.”

These huge global platforms come with a high risk/reward quotient on quality, as well. One defective part could trigger a massive global recall that overnight could obliterate any upfront cost savings.

That means much more will be asked of parts makers in keeping close tabs on manufacturing down through the lower tiers of the supply chain to limit exposure if a recall is required.

“You have knocked-down kits being shipped to smaller markets. You might have swing capacity (where) you are exporting parts to another part of the world,” Andrea points out. “You have to be able to trace parts back to all those scenarios.

“You look at all the (initial) cost savings and all the other advantages over the years, (and) you just don’t want to have that one recall situation that can wipe (that) out.”

But using the same parts and identical architectural strategies gives automakers more time to perfect designs, potentially reducing recalls overall, engineers argue.

“Typically, diversity does not go very well with quality,” Renault’s Billig notes. “And by reducing this diversity, we have more time to focus on the maturity of our solution, on our processes and the repeatability of what we are doing.”

Thai-Tang agrees. “Net-net, we think it’s actually a good thing for quality.”

In the end, the potential advantages outweigh the drawbacks. Even though engineers know there are huge roadblocks to designing the truly scalable, flexible vehicle platform with a high percentage of common parts, they’ll keep trying – and ultimately push the bar a little higher with each attempt.

Asked if scalability is the future, Renault’s Billig says simply, “We think it is.”

AlixPartner’s Hoffecker sums it up this way: “Everybody’s (wanted) to do this for decades. The reality is it’s become more and more important as we get more and more global products, and consumers want and desire more differentiation and price points.

“It’s almost becoming a requirement.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com