Ford Thinks electric

An electric car made of plastic in Norway may not seem like a car giant’s ideal model, but with Ford’s backing just such a vehicle is now in production, writes Brian Davis

When a Norwegian company whose experience was mainly in making plastics announced it was developing a radical, plastic-bodied, two-seater electric car, it created a considerable stir.

The Think seemed credible in a country where environmental consciousness is high and electricity is generated mainly by hydroelectric power. Initial backing from national energy company Statoil, plus £70m from other investors, allowed manufacturer Pivco to put over 50 prototype vehicles on the road in Norway and to pilot a rail/drive programme in the San Francisco Bay area. But many doubted whether the car would make it into production.

The sceptics seemed to have been proved right when Pivco, which had been developing the Think since 1991, announced it needed a partner to invest a large amount, and then last year was forced into insolvency.

There was greater surprise when a big investor did turn up – in the guise of Ford. It acquired 51% of Pivco, now renamed Think Nordic, early this year. And last month commercial production of the car, now known as the Think City, began at the company’s new Norwegian factory in Aurskog, near Oslo.

If the Think is successful in Norway, Ford might introduce it to other European, US and Asian markets. At the factory’s opening ceremony, Ford chief executive Jac Nasser described the Think City as `showing the way for niche, low-volume, flexible manufacturing, as well as demonstrating alternative power technology’.

Pivco brought in PA Consulting Group to design a programme to take the vehicle from concept to full production of about 5,000 vehicles a year. PA consultant Howard Bowron says: `Pivco was attuned to the environmental aspects of the vehicle, which had to be lightweight, easily recyclable and environmentally friendly, but manufacturing was a completely new challenge.’

The Think’s conception as a short-range car for mainly urban use, with lightweight construction a prerequisite, makes it a considerably different manufacturing proposition from a conventional car.

The car’s space frame structure and rotational moulded thermoplastic body panels offer a low-cost, low-weight alternative to a conventional body made of steel pressings. The body consists of only seven separate panels mounted on an extruded aluminium upper frame and pressed-steel subframe.

The matt panels are self-coloured, so there is no need for a paint shop, but when they emerge from the mould they need extensive trimming using special tools, fixtures and templates. This labour-intensive process is unable to satisfy volume growth, so there are plans to introduce robot trimming from March 2000.

Key components such as the electric motor and gearbox, supplied by Siemens, and the battery management system, from Alcatel subsidiary Saft, are supplied as complete units. The 3m long vehicle weighs only 930kg, and has less than 400 parts.

Because the Think is seen as a lifestyle statement, there will be few customer options and variations. `Think cars have more in common with some fashion markets than the car market,’ says Bowron. `The product has low complexity but high market uncertainty compared to conventional vehicles.’

PA Consulting proposed and evaluated a number of ways of organising production. It recognised that there was cultural resistance in Norway to production line working. But there was also a need to guarantee sufficient output and high build quality with limited investment.

Cellular assembly was rejected as needing too much space, too much training and duplication of assembly equipment. In low-volume car production, a moving assembly line is often dispensed with: the whole car is rolled forward on its wheels to the next station on the line at a timed signal. But a moving assembly line helps workers maintain a uniform rate of work and provides a guaranteed daily output. Higher build quality can also be achieved.

The solution adopted was `paced’ assembly using a relatively slow- moving assembly line based around a 70m long slat conveyor, in which each worker has around 20 minutes to complete a number of tasks.

`It’s been a challenge bringing a new product and plant on line,’ says Kjell Str+m, Pivco vice-president of operations. Extensive training has been necessary, as many of the 50 workers on the line and 40 support workers are from process industry or agricultural backgrounds.

Ford subsidiary Hertz has signed a deal to distribute the Think City in Norway, rather than the manufacturer having a dealer network of its own. Fleet sales are expected to account for most demand: Norwegian state telecom operator Telenor has already expressed interest.

Due to its range and speed limitations the car is not expected to attract many private buyers, although it may appeal as a second car for city run-around, especially in California, which has strong emission controls.

But in time, the Think could have a big impact on Ford’s mainstream products. In the words of Jac Nasser: `Ford has to learn to think more like Think to cut the cost and time of new car development and create leaner organisations, as well as to reap the environmental benefits.’