Rover’s six-point turn

When, in 1994, BMW gave its new subsidiary Rover the go-ahead to develop what became the Rover 75, the company’s engineers felt an unparalleled sense of freedom. This would be the first Rover for 20 years whose design would be unconstrained either by lack of funds the budget was £700m, including £270m spent on new […]

When, in 1994, BMW gave its new subsidiary Rover the go-ahead to develop what became the Rover 75, the company’s engineers felt an unparalleled sense of freedom.

This would be the first Rover for 20 years whose design would be unconstrained either by lack of funds the budget was £700m, including £270m spent on new production facilities at Oxford or by the need to derive the car from existing models, or to collaborate, and inevitably compromise, with Honda.

But it was a freedom tinged with an awesome sense of responsibility. This car, as project director Peter Morgan points out, would represent ‘the re-emergence of the Rover marque’. Its success is of crucial importance to the company. The re-establishment of Rover’s reputation as a world-class car maker ‘one of Britain’s fine cars’ as the old slogan, revived for the launch at October’s Birmingham Motor Show, modestly puts it will depend on how well the company’s design team has executed its task. Because, with its first in-house design for 20 years, there will be no-one else to blame if the car fails to meet the high expectations surrounding it.

Aware of the stakes, Rover went back to basics to ask: how do you design a car from a clean sheet of paper? The result, says Rover 75 chief engineer David Waide, was a six-point ‘engineering for excellence’ framework.

It began with a vision that was strikingly ambitious: to produce ‘the best front-wheel drive car in the world’. Step two was to develop a ‘world-class attitude’ in the team. Waide admits that the constraints of the past had led to inventive engineering, but functional performance which fell short of the best. The design team attended seminars and workshops emphasising teamworking, to explore the factors behind success and of the meaning of world-class.

The third step was setting targets for the car and for future Rover models. This began by defining a handful of all-embracing values and features that Rover should seek to represent to customers, such as ‘British style’, ‘effortless performance’, ‘welcoming interiors’, ‘engineering integrity’ and ‘detailed craftsmanship’.

These were broken down in turn into around 100 more detailed attributes and hundreds of individual targets. For example, for front seating, the long-distance comfort criterion was ‘a 13-hour journey conducted in comfort with no backache’. The current Rover 600 was then benchmarked against 19 competitors and scored on each attribute. Based on the result, a target for the new car was set for each attribute more than 1,000 in total.

Selecting the right solutions

Not until stage four did engineering concepts start to be considered. The team produced a ‘strategy selection tree’ in which all known engineering solutions were grouped with each attribute and target, and were then evaluated to find the most effective one.

Suppliers had to be closely involved in this process and capable of meeting the quality standards. Around 80% of the 75’s content is made in the UK.

Sometimes targets conflicted for example, between having a certain thickness of seat foam in the rear seat while leaving sufficient headroom and allowing a low roof line. In other cases the criteria could not all be met at a reasonable cost.

To ensure that compromises were negotiated in an informed way and that no criterion was relaxed unwittingly, each target was ‘owned’ by a team member. ‘If you didn’t know something was a criterion you’d miss it,’ says Waide. Decisions were arrived at by testing against the basic brand values and asking: what do we need to do to satisfy these? Would it make the car more Rover to spend extra money?

Step five was to ensure that everything promised in the design could be put into production. One aspect of this was an electronic product definition (EPD) strategy. EPD, used in the Land Rover Freelander, has been taken further with the 75, with the decision to model every component, from the engine to trim, in 3D CAD using Cadds 5, linked to a Camus database.

The database was based on the engineering strategy selection tree and was linked by scripts written in-house to Robcad Dynamo to allow virtual assembly. The entire build sequence was modelled. ‘We built every prototype in IT three months in advance, identifying and fixing problems,’ says digital car design manager Richard Powell. He estimates 750 potential build problems were dealt with before they hit the production line.

This stage also laid great emphasis on quality maturation, a concept learnt from Honda, says Waide. The production development phase is about proving the part as designed can be made on production tools. Quality maturation is the process of proving the part can be made right every time, with production running at full speed and varying conditions.

‘We made thousands of parts, deliberately varying conditions such as temperature to make sure we were still meeting tolerances,’ says Waide.

Overlying the whole process is the sixth element of the strategy, rigorously applied project management processes, incorporating elements of BMW’s management processes, with an overriding emphasis on quality. Waide sums up: ‘It’s not enough just to do the detailed design you’ve got to manage the whole framework correctly. So many things can knock you off course, to have a robust project management structure is absolutely vital.’

Whether Rover has indeed made the best front-wheel drive car in the world will be decided by the market when the car goes on sale midway through the year. But Waide says: ‘Without this process or its equivalent, success happens by accident. With this system, any success will be because we planned it that way.’