Steve von Foerster
Title: Chief program engineer, Ford Explorer
Previous title: Chief vehicle engineer, Ford Explorer
Steve von Foerster's challenge as program chief engineer is to make the next-generation Ford Explorer a stronger global competitor.
And the Explorer, unveiled at the recent Geneva auto show, will be more competitive outside North America than its predecessor, said von Foerster.
Von Foerster started as chassis manager with Ford's Explorer/Mountaineer team in January 1997, at the U152 program's inception. He then became chief vehicle engineer and in September 1999 moved to manage the program.
'One of most rewarding surprises of the new Explorer program was getting the backing to develop the best,' said von Foerster.
The development team wanted Explorer to be best-in-class worldwide. 'It's not good enough to be the best vehicle in North America, because we really would like to succeed in other markets.' said von Foerster.
The team made several trips to Europe, Australia and the Middle East to learn about market needs and customer preferences.
But von Foerster acknowledges that Explorer's prospects in Europe depend more on exchange rates than on production capacity. Sales outside North America are only five percent of Explorer's 445,000 US volume and he wants to raise that to 10 percent. A strong US dollar makes European Explorer sales more challenging. European sales were only 2,580 in 2000, down 41 percent from 1999.
'It's more of a personal commitment by this team,' said von Foerster. The Explorer team set out to beat the Lexus RX300 and Volkswagen's Colorado project, he said, rather than just US rivals such as the Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Blazer and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The Explorer team focused on three areas in which it wanted segment leadership: noise, vibration and harshness; dynamic performance; and safety.
Going for European markets 'really pushed us to try to satisfy more of the driving dynamics and [noise, vibration and harshness] attributes that the European customer wants,' said von Foerster.
Meeting a wind noise-damping target of 130kph is good enough for North America, but for Explorer the threshold was set at 160kph, he said. 'You are going to find a uniquely tuned suspension for Europe with unique brakes and tires,' said von Foerster.
Overall program goals were turned into targets for individual components. For example, changing to an independent rear suspension helped the new Explorer hit all three targets, said von Foerster.
The new Explorer's frame delivers 350 percent more torsional stiffness. With a 26 percent improvement in vertical and lateral bending, the improvements significantly reduce noise, vibration and harshness. New micro-cellular body mounts, new engines and transmissions and additional insulation also made the vehicle quieter and smoother.
The U152 was the first high-volume program in North America to use the new Ford Product Development System. Suppliers were involved in developing detailed vehicle targets with Ford.
Key suppliers - such as Tower for the frame, Lear for seats and Bosch for brakes - were selected early. Ninety percent of vehicle content was sourced before the design freeze in February 1998.
Tier 1 suppliers received major responsibility for selecting Tier 2 suppliers. For example, BorgWarner won the four-wheel-drive system assignment without a design competition. But interior contracts were hotly contested.
Many suppliers were selected from the existing Explorer suppliers. Ford favors long-term relationships, especially when suppliers are performing well, said von Foerster.