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Interview with Francois Castaing

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Interview with Francois Castaing

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This 1992 interview with Francois J. Castaing, vice president -- Vehicle Engineering -- largely refers to the origin of the original LH series (Intrepid, Concorde, Vision, LHS, New Yorker) but applies generally as well.

Chris Theodore, leader of some of Chrysler's most successful products, said in 2012:

I had a lot of good mentors along the way, but the best and the one who had the biggest influence on me was Francois Casting. He had a neat way of taking people, turning them loose, challenging them, not micromanaging.

He always has this positive attitude, this way and he'd wink and he'd smile and he'd motivate you. ... There were times when he'd bring you in and he'd say, here's a piece of advice I've learned from somebody else. Don't fall into this hole. I remember each platform team, the first time they'd run a prototype into the wall, it would never do exactly what the CIE modeling predicted. First was the LH and damn, they had to go back and redesign. Second was the Neon, and third out was the minivan. Francois said look, the other guys have failed on this. You better get involved, and I did. I said, "We're doing this different and we're doing that different and we're not going to make the same mistake." Sure enough, the minivan went into the wall; same result. Just a little bit better.

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Q. First off, let's discuss the LH product. What's at stake for Chrysler?

A. Perhaps the most important thing ... and this is just my opinion ... is to realize that LH represents Chrysler's first opportunity in a long time to prove to itself, prove to its dealers and prove to its customers that it can again be a very strong competitor in the car side of the business. We've been recognized for some time as a strong player in the truck business with our minivans and Jeep vehicles.

So the LH, in one sense, is our chance to re-establish the feeling that we can perform in the car business as well as anybody. That's our primary objective. Of course, it's not a make-or-break proposition for the company because it is only one car line. We're not betting the company, but sure enough we're betting our self-esteem.

So it's a matter more of re-establishing our pride and reputation, to prove that we in the U.S. can be competitive on the car side of the business against a proliferation of highly-successful Japanese cars. That's where I see the LH leading the fight for all of us.

Q Did the LH program trigger Chrysler's switch to the Platform Team approach of product development?

A. The LH came along at a time when we already had recognized the necessity of changing our way of doing business. Also, like the Dodge Viper, the LH was to become a very visible experiment into the new platform system. Since it was one of the first products, we learned some good and bad things about the system along the way. The important thing to remember is that LH is not only going to prove we can compete successfully in the car business, but it also will show that we can make the platform system work for the good of the company.

Q. As an engineer, what do you see as the outstanding characteristics of the LH cars?

A. I don't view cars as being good because they are a collection of some good or outstanding features. Cars are not something that, as you drive them, you analyze as a sum of things. Cars are something that you perceive and embrace and appreciate as a whole. Every system of a car interlocks into every other system. I'm a believer that great cars are the ones that you feel great in.

Cab Forward in itself is the perfect example because we made it a cue of something to talk about on these cars. Cab Forward is an over-simplification of the reality which can be explained
in the following way: Great designers sometimes create cars that cannot be engineered. Great engineers have great ideas that don't look good or are not manufacturable.

Cab Forward in this car represents a designer, an engineer and a manufacturing guy working together to reconcile their differences in order to achieve what is going to be a great environment, a great driving experience in a great-looking car that can be manufactured with a great deal of quality and reliability ... meeting all the standards and at an affordable cost.

So I don't view the LH as a sum of more or less outstanding features. The car must be remembered as a great looking, fun-to-drive car. The more you drive it, the more you love it. It's a great value. lt's a compilation of everything about the car that counts.

Q You mentioned it was coincidental that the LH came along at a point when Chrysler already was considering a change in its product development scheme. What exactly is the origin of the Platform Team?

A. First, there was the realization that our traditional engineering organization back in 1987-88 wasn't going to be able to cope with the flow of new products we had to do. Chrysler had no choice but to re-do it quickly. The traditional system would not have permitted us to either meet the timing or swallow and digest the flow of products coming one after the other ... the new minivan, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Viper, the new LH and so on. So first, out of necessity, we had to experiment with another way of doing it. The other way we found was based on the idea that a small, dedicated team where everybody understood the objective and the customer requirements would be more efficient than centralized, functional organizations.

Back in the fall of 1988 we knew the Platform Team approach could work because the Jeep/Truck group already was more or less organized like that. We knew that the Japanese and some others around the world had been using this system for quite some time. We also had some direct experience with Mitsubishi, thanks to Glenn Gardner (general manager -- Large Car Platform Engineering and head of the LH Team) working with them at Diamond-Star Motors. So we decided to try it. And we expanded from there.

Q In retrospect, has the Platform Team format, with a big project like LH and a small one like Viper under your belt, turned out as well as you imagined?

A. It's accomplishing exactly what it was supposed to do. It's performing better than we'd hoped in some ways, but not for everything, because there is a learning curve. Still, I'd say it's doing exactly what it was designed to do ... and more.

The success of anything, of course, must be measured in the marketplace. So I guess I would be more outspoken about how successful we have been once the LH is out there and additional products created under this system are out there.

In all the programs begun so far, our timing is on track, below cost objectives and right on reliability targets. This tells us that from where we sit that the system is working. It can be improved, naturally. Not everything worked perfectly the first time around so over time we will make the system even more efficient and responsive. That's our objective.

Q You described part of the platform approach as being an experiment. How's that?

A. Maybe the biggest experiment was for a member of the team to become empowered. Our big corporation used to be structured with the power at the top and the execution by people at the bottom.

Now suddenly, a team member has been given a lot more power to decide what is right for the customer, what is right for the company and what is right for the team itself by balancing decisions every day with other members of the team. It's an experiment because as much as people intellectually love the concept, when you've been trained in being told what to do and, as much as you like to decide things for yourself ... it's a bit scary. It's scary for the people receiving power and for the people giving up the power.

Q Some mistakes obviously had to be made along the way. Can you share some examples?

A. That's not easy to pinpoint in a black or white manner. But I would say we should have invited some of our suppliers to be part of the Platform Team earlier. They still came in early compared to prior programs. But in retrospect, we have to ask ourselves, had we brought this guy in six months sooner, could a die or a particular part have been done more smoothly?

At the end, it resulted in a little more rush and a little more pain, but there were no make-or- break mishaps. Things could have been smoother and smarter, perhaps.

Q It's such a radical departure from the old ways, there must have been a lot of internal resistance to the Platform Team concept?

A. Sure, some people were not comfortable in the beginning. Contrary to my personal analysis at the time that the new product program required a new organization, the old conventional wisdom would say, 'we cannot combine getting into a revolutionary new car with Cab Forward and change the organization at the same time.'

My answer to that was, 'yes we can.' I felt strongly that the only way to develop the LH as the car people expected it to be was to change the way we did the work. Now, it took some people just one night to jump into it (accept the new approach) and some others a year, still others two years. I will say, remarkably, over a period of less than two years, the non-believers became believers. Two years is a lot of time to some people, others say it's nothing. But remember we were changing a system that has been a tradition around here for decades.

Q Conceding that you don't want to dwell on the individual product features in the LH, will you make one exception and tell us about the 3.5-liter, 24-valve, V-6 engine.

A. It's an interesting engine beyond the fact that it's a great engine to drive. It was a challenge because when we started the LH program in January, 1989, the only engine we knew we had for sure was the 3.3-liter V-6. But we felt if the car was to be a success, it needed a brand new, high power, high technology engine.

The engine people on the team knew they had never designed a new engine that quickly (40 months). Also, the investment would be quite high. There also was the fear that when you commit a lot of money for the company, you want to commit it right and not make a mistake. Still, the team and engine people within the team realized the LH would not be a success unless the new engine was there at the same time we launched the car.

So instead of giving in to the negatives that it couldn't be done, that we couldn't get the technology, the slickness, the power, the low emissions, the fellows said, 'let's go for it.' They challenged themselves, they were convinced the 3.5 engine was an absolute cornerstone for the car.

Q. What would have happened to the engine under Chrysler's old engineering system of four/five years in development?

A. It could not have been done better and possibly worse. The engine must satisfy the customer so the end result is a 'given,' whether it takes you five years or three years to get there.

Looking back, the engine and manufacturing people at first wouldn't commit to Job 1. They said it typically takes 4-1/2 years to do an engine -- maybe they could take one year off the program and make it at 1993-1/2. That meant the first six months of production would be without a 3.5.

But the more they thought about it, they told themselves, 'that isn't going to do it.' So a week at a time, they convinced themselves to move it up. They cut the time and so now the 3.5 will be there when Concordes, lntrepids and Visions are sold this fall.

Q With LH's smaller-than-usual engine compartment dictated by the Cab Forward package, is a future V8 engine application possible?

A. Not in this configuration, but the basic platform can accommodate a V-8. It would require some major face-lift surgery, however.

Q Can any of the LH's ... say the Dodge Intrepid ... have racing in its future?

A. I don't know of anywhere in the world where 4-door sedans race, except maybe in Europe where BMW, Mercedes and Audi compete in the German Touring Car championship. There is nothing comparable in the U.S. so I don't know where a car like the LH could race. The Acura Legend does not race in this county. The Lexus 400 does not, Pontiac Bonneville does not, the Ford Taurus does not. These kinds of cars are not designed for racing.

Q Does the Cab Forward design influence the weight distribution of the LH?

A. It doesn't affect anything, really. Since Cab Forward provides a bigger hole in the middle of the car for the passengers, it doesn't change weight distribution. The weight distribution is pretty much like any conventional front-wheel drive car.

Q. A great deal has been made of the fact that the LH's engines will be longitudinally mounted. Why go that way since engines in most front-wheel drive cars today are transversely mounted?

A. An east-west V-6 creates a nightmare when you try to drive the exhaust pipe back from the face of the engine and, in these days, where we have to use sophisticated catalytic converters for future emissions standards, north-south provides an opportunity to have better and smarter solutions.

Also, I might add that north-south engine mounting does not create a long nose for the car, as some people suggest. V-6 engines nowadays are as wide as they are long. Regardless of the positioning, the nose or length of the engine is almost the same as the width. In plan view, they are virtually the same.

Q From what you're saying, are we to conclude the north-south setting may replace east- west in most front-wheel drive cars of the future?

A. Not necessarily. It's just that we felt north-south was the optimum design for this car. For a four-cylinder car, east-west still is best because it is a different environment, different compromise and a different set of requirements.

With a six-cylinder engine, as I said, north-south is the optimum design. I was glad to see engineers at Honda and Audi came to the same conclusion. It's intriguing that within a year, Acura Legend is born, the Audi 100 is born and the LH is born, all with the same basic design for engine layout.

Q What part of the LH development process do you regard as playing the most significant role?

A. A key element in any program is the development quality of the prototype vehicles. If they accurately represent the original design intent, you can find any early bugs and work out the problems before the car gets into production. If you produce lousy prototypes, you fix the wrong things. We have made tremendous progress in building prototypes .. an order of at least one magnitude better than we did in the past. We have a better organization, better tools, better manufacturing and better suppliers. That's the reason.

Q. Now that LH is about to be launched and the platform approach is proving itself, can Chrysler afford to dust sit back and wait for the vehicle orders to pour in?

A. Absolutely not. There has to be continuous, ongoing improvement. Maybe it's at two levels. As I said, our platform organization is not perfect. We are refining it platform by platform and project after project.

As much as we are proud of the LH and to the degree as we feel customers are going to like the car, as engineers we must look at it and know it's not perfect. We will continue to work on the car because as good as it may be at Job 1, you can always improve or refine a product. We're going to listen to customers and if they tell us something about the LH is not as good as it should be, we're going to improve it.

You learn in doing. So with the next LH, which by the way is already on the drawing boards, we will be trying to fix what is not perfect with the cars now coming out.

Other platforms coming soon, the T-300, PL and JA, are already taking advantage of what we've learned from the LH ... whether it's in the design, the processing or the technical characteristics of the car. So we don't view LH as the end-all, but the beginning. Certainly it's an important car for us because it's the first major one in the process, but it's just the beginning.

Q If you characterize the formation of Platform Teams within Chrysler as somewhat of a revolution in how cars are developed, is there a revolution of another sort ahead or will it be a continual evolution?

A. It will be a continual evolution. Bringing the platform concept on board was a leap forward because it brought us back into the mainstream of being competitive, but from now on we will focus on continual improvement. I don't see another revolution around the corner. I see continuous evolution of what we have done, the way we're operating.

Q The product aside, over the last three years of the new development process, what aspect has been most gratifying to you?

A. That's very complicated, but I feel most proud of seeing people change. I know of many in engineering who, just three years ago, were conservative, anti-risk taking, and planning a future to eventually move out of Engineering into Product Planning or Finance. These were young people you would expect to be more aggressive.

I see the same people today ... they're taking charge, taking risks. They want to stay in the business of engineering cars. They stand behind their decisions, no hiding. ..good or bad. They have extended their scope to include more of the automobile. Under the Platform Team system, instead of being involved with one little piece, they're responsible for a bigger chunk of the car. That makes them and me feel good.

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