3 Disruptive Lessons Automakers Should Learn for Greater Efficiency

Boeing establishes an overall weight target for each new airplane program it initiates, based on a combination of top-down historical parametrics, bottom-up weight accounting, and theoretical limits based on material properties. The target is always aggressive and always difficult to achieve, and is broken down and distributed to each area of the airplane so each team owns its portion and strives continuously to meet it.

Secondly, visibility of progress toward the target is provided regularly to senior leaders, who also examine design studies involving weight savings at the "whole-airplane" level so individual teams can never lock themselves away and optimize their system at the expense of the airplane as a whole.

A third critical element to Boeing's lightweight institutional culture is a dedicated, cross-functional team whose sole focus is to ensure that weight targets are met, that weight savings ideas receive their due attention and analysis and that ideas are evaluated according to the whole airplane impact. Finally, company incentives are established to elicit and encourage generation of innovative weight-saving ideas.

2. Seek out wise investments and partnerships.

Once this culture is established, manufacturers can move to investing in advanced materials, including establishing partnerships with other manufacturers to precompetitively work out particularly challenging technical problems, such as the Automotive Composites Consortium. Partnering opportunities can often also take the form of a joint venture between a manufacturer and material supplier, such as the partnership between BMW and SGL, and more recently, GM and Teijin.

The transition toward retooled factories can begin with a substitution phase in which a few standard parts on an existing vehicle are replaced with lightweight composite parts, enabling a manufacturer to build analysis and design prowess for composites while establishing industrial partnerships, working out the raw material supply chain and gaining a head start on tooling.

3. Make marketing work.

A final immediate step manufacturers can take is to market lightweight vehicles in a way that emphasizes performance in addition to efficiency. Lightness, particularly of the magnitude possible with advanced materials, allows better acceleration, particularly if combined with electrified propulsion. Many customers will pay a high premium for performance regardless of efficiency.

Luckily, the industry transition toward lightweight vehicles offers a robust business model to U.S. manufacturers, helps move the U.S. transportation system toward an oil- and emissions-free future and enables some of the fastest, most appealing vehicles to come out in the last decade. How could we have better examples of what's possible than the Tesla Roadster or BMW i8?

[Editor's Note: Don't miss VERGE DC (March 14-16) convening senior executives and thought leaders at the intersection of technologies and services related to energy, information, buildings, and transportation.VERGE DC will showcase how companies accelerate innovation, break down organizational silos, and bring new products and services to market.]