CRANFIELD, UK - Japanese engineers working at the Nissan European Technology Center are sometimes frustrated by the complexities of designing cars for Europe.
So tricky is the European market, that some end up longing for a return to Japan or a stint in North America. For an engineer or designer, life can be simpler in those places.
That is because the European market is really not a single market at all, but a series of smaller markets existing side-by-side. While they have similarities, there are also maddening differences.
'Germans like dull grey cars with plastic everywhere,' says Andy Palmer, general manager of vehicle design and test at the center. 'The British like bits of wood. The French like a soft suspension. The Germans prefer a hard suspension. The Italians are a breed apart.
'That's the joy - and downside - of being an auto designer in Europe,' he says. These differences are what dictate design philosophy at Cranfield, located in the peaceful UK countryside north of London.
With all the talk of world cars, markets are actually growing further apart. Japan has gone overboard for tall, thin vehicles. Americans love trucks. Europe has an ongoing affair with hatchbacks. So Nissan has three design centers. Japan is the mother and Cranfield and Detroit are the daughters.
'We're not trying to design a global car, but a European car using global technology,' says Palmer. Nissan believes what its designers produce in Cranfield will in the future make the company competitive with Europe's biggest marques: VW, Ford and Opel/Vauxhall, Palmer said.
Dan Jones, director of the Lean Enterprise Research Center at Cardiff University Business School, said Nissan has been ahead of its main Japanese rivals Toyota and Honda both in setting up a design center and in working with European suppliers. Nissan's program at Cranfield University to train suppliers to work alongside Nissan engineers is exemplary, said Jones, also co-author of The Machine that Changed the World.
As a result Nissan leads its rivals in defective parts, with about 150 faults per million, he said.
'Everyone else is double or four-times that,' said Jones.
Over the 10 years since it opened as a collection of portable cabins adjacent to Nissan's Sunderland factory, the center has come a long way. The first job Nissan engineers tackled was in 1986, when they adapted the Nissan Bluebird so Japanese component designs could be made by European suppliers.
With each succeeding car, the engineers have moved further upstream in the design process.
After the Bluebird came its replacement, the Primera, code-named P10 and launched in 1990. The goal with the Primera was to localize component sourcing at any cost, making those components meet European Community standards. Engineers also had to be sure independently-owned European suppliers could make the same quality parts as their counterparts in Japan. Nissan learned a lesson with the Primera, Palmer said. Many of the locally-produced parts were not ready by the start of production because test standards had not been achieved early enough. Those lessons were carried forward to the next car, the Micra supermini, launched in 1992. This time, Nissan gave suppliers specifications early so they could do their trial work, Palmer said.
As a result, Nissan saved a substantial amount of money at the tail end of the project.
After setting the groundwork by localizing Japanese-designed components, Nissan designers at Cranfield took a larger step: joining Japan at the beginning of the design process. The Primera, redesigned in 1996, embodied that process.
Japanese designers, for example, design headlamps with two vents to prevent the lights from misting up. European light makers use a single vent, and there is no noticeable difference in quality or function.
'If you force your supplier to go to double-venting in Europe, it costs you extra money for little or no benefit,' said Palmer.
However, with the redesigned Primera, Nissan's Cranfield operation achieved a more significant distinction than headlamp vents. The center designed the station wagon version of the car that was exported back to Japan, starting this year.
The next big job for Nissan's European engineers will be replacing the Almera, Nissan's entry in the critical lower-medium segment. That car, code-named HS, will launch in 2000. With the Almera, the design center will include features specifically for European customers. For example, it will have the dial-operated seat recliner favored by Europeans rather than the lever-operated variety Japanese motorists prefer.
With the Almera, total responsibility for the derivative version rests with Cranfield and the satellite centers that report to it. The new Almera hatchback will be designed entirely in Europe and the sedan in Japan. In the future, Cranfield will take a greater role in designing features that please customers.
The center now has five European satellite operations under its wing: Nissan Design Europe in Munich, the design studio; NETC-Espana; NETC-Brussels, responsible for keeping Nissan in tune with European Community regulations, and NETC-Sunderland, where the test track is located.
With all its strengths working with suppliers and altering Japanese designs for Europe, Nissan's Achilles' heel in Europe is styling, said University of Cardiff's Jones. The company has so far failed to break out of its mold as a designer of conservative, boring cars, he said. 'Nissan needs to give its European designers more autonomy.
'They showed a car in Birmingham and Paris (the KYXX supermini concept car designed by a young stylist at the Munich studio), but I doubt they have courage to make it,' said Jones. 'The Nissan plant in Sunderland is an exemplary plant. For that to fail because they didn't get the models right would be a real shame.'