BIZMOLOGY — The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is set to start in a couple of weeks, and insiders close to the situation report Ford has a big surprise in store — the debut of the new Ford F-150 pickup with an aluminum body. At last year’s show Ford announced it would strive to shed as much as 750 pounds from its storied pickups in the effort to meet ever-tightening US fuel efficiency standards.
The stakes are high for Ford’s aluminum F-150 gamble. The F-150 is not only Ford’s best-selling product, it’s also the best-selling truck in the country for 37 years running, and the US’s top-selling vehicle of any model by any manufacturer for 32 years. If Ford doesn’t get this right the first time, it has the potential to be a product fiasco that would make any marketer pine for the good old days of the launch for New Coke.
F-150 people are a loyal bunch, but a truck that’s perceived as anything but Ford Tough will be a hard sell. To address the issue of toughness, as part of its display at the 2014 Detroit auto show, Ford is expected to borrow a sample of aluminum from Alcoa that’s used to make aluminum blast shields for military vehicles. But overcoming skepticism among show attendees might not be Ford’s toughest challenge with the rollout of the aluminum F-150.
To accomplish the switch from steel to aluminum bodies, Ford may have to shut down and retool its plants that assemble F-150s. The process of installing new robotics and other assembly machinery could take six weeks, according to estimates by IHS Automotive.
Unfortunately for Ford, the revolutionary move toward aluminum is already drawing comparisons with another transformative product rollout — Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. And most of us know how well that turned out. The Dreamliner was under initial development when Ford’s current CEO — Alan Mulally — was the head of commercial aircraft at Boeing. That’s about where the comparison begins and ends — and it seems a little forced and unfair. But because Mulally’s name is associated with both products and both companies, it was bound to happen. I won’t even go into the beer can jokes.
Making the aluminum F-150 happen will be the task of Mulally’s heir apparent, COO Mark Fields. As rumors swirl that Mulally may wind up being the next CEO of Microsoft, Fields is tasked with ensuring the new F-150 enjoys a smooth rollout. That will be made more challenging considering Ford plans more than a dozen other new or refreshed models in 2014.
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