Heavy-duty truck cab manufacturer Commercial Vehicle Group took on a sports car design challenge and walked off with awards, and new knowledge. George Lauer explains how experience with Ford GT’s limited-production project has strengthened this growing company.
Sometimes in your work life, it’s healthy to do something a little off course. Not way off the main track, but maybe a different lane. If you’re a pastry chef, maybe you try making soup. If you’re an electrician, maybe you learn plumbing.
If you make heavy-duty trucks and transport vehicles, maybe you design a sports car. Commercial Vehicle Group did just that and walked away with awards, new ideas and, for the CEO, a very fast sports car.
Commercial Vehicle Group’s Engineered Vehicle Structures Division won two prestigious Henry Ford Technology Awards this fall for the development and process design of the Ford GT space frame and for the design of the innovative Ford GT body in white.
“It was a great project to be involved in,” says Patrick Miller, vice president and general manager of CVG’s Engineered Vehicle Structures Division. “There’s a lot of pride in doing these high-profile projects and we learned a lot, as well. CVG was one of four major design teams partnered with Ford Motor Company in using leading-edge technology to create one of the greatest sports cars in history.”
Not only was the limited-edition Ford GT fast on the asphalt, it was fast in the creation process. The whole project took about 28 months from concept to the day the last of 4,038 cars rolled off the production line in Wixom, Mich. Introduced as a modern version of the popular Ford GT40 from the late 1960s at an auto show in 2002, the Ford GT was put on the fast track so the first cars could be ready for Ford’s centennial celebration in the summer of 2003.
Once off the production line, it went on to another kind of fast track. The 550-hp speed machine achieved speeds of more than 210 miles per hour.
CVG selection made sense
Choosing CVG, which specializes in designing and building components for the cabs of heavy-duty trucks that help keep drivers comfortable and safe, may seem an odd choice for Ford’s high-end concept car, but it made perfect sense to Fred Goodnow, design engineering manager for the Ford
“We knew we wanted to work with an aluminum body design and we looked around and found who we thought was the best,” Goodnow says. “That was Mayflower Vehicle Systems in England. They were the ones responsible for Land Rovers and other luxury British designs and they came very highly recommended.”
Mayflower became part of CVG in February, 2005 and has evolved into the Engineered Vehicle Structures Division. Still referred to as Mayflower at times, it is CVG’s largest division.
Taking on the sports car design project also made sense from the other side of the equation.
“It was a good marriage in many ways,” Miller says of the partnership with Ford. “Although the core of our business is building Class A heavy-duty truck cabs, we are very capable, renowned for our understanding of aluminum design features in aluminum, whether they’re put to use in a sports car or a truck. The skill set for one applies to the other.
“Plus, we specialize in lower-volume niche vehicles,” Miller adds. “Projects like this aren’t very attractive for large, light vehicle suppliers who are used to production in the hundreds of thousands. This was a very limited production and was a lot closer to our sweet spot.” CVG has been involved in other high profile Niche vehicles such as the Chevrolet SSR and the Plymouth Prowler. The CVG team was able to draw on past experiences to take the design of the GT to a new level.
Experience may pay off
Headquartered in New Albany, Ohio with operations throughout North America, Europe and Asia, CVG is a leading supplier of fully integrated system solutions for the global commercial vehicle market which includes heavy-duty (Class 8) truck, construction, agriculture, specialty and military transportation markets. CVG manufactures and assembles mirrors, wiper systems, electronic wire harness and panel assemblies. The company also produces suspension seat systems and interior trim modules including instrument panels, door panels, headliners, cabinetry and floor systems. CVG’s Structures Division manufactures complete cab structures, sleeper boxes, body panels and structural components for the commercial vehicle and automotive industries. Lastly, CVG has an international group that produces seats and similar commercial components in various regions outside of North America including the UK, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
While it has enjoyed its share of activity in its industry, and has experienced rapid growth in the last five years, the company currently is bracing for a long-predicted slow-down in the trucking industry. The slowdown is only predicted to last for a portion of 2007.
The company had record revenue and net income in 2005. Sales doubled to $754.5 million from 2004, while profits almost tripled to $49.5 million. CVG acquired three other commercial vehicle-components makers in 2005, including the $107.5 million purchase of Mayflower Vehicle Systems. Incorporated in 2000, CVG went public in mid-2004 at $13 a share (NASDAQ:CVGI). Since then, its share price has risen more than 50 percent.
“Part of our strategy,” Miller says, “is to diversify and strengthen our positions in other areas such as agriculture, construction, the boating industry, and military transportation.” With this approach, CVG can mitigate the cyclicality of the North American Truck market. Projects such as the GT contribute to the balance of its portfolio.
CVG is expanding geographically as well with new operations this fall in the Czech Republic to complement the company’s strong presence in Europe and Asia.
CVG has 5,600 employees worldwide, about 900 of them in the Engineered Structures Division. The company’s core products include seats and suspension seat systems, interior trim (instrument panels, door panels, headliners), mirrors, wiper systems, and controls. The company’s customers include OEM manufacturers such as Navistar’s International Truck, PACCAR, Volvo, Caterpillar, and DaimlerChrysler’s Freightliner subsidiary.
In addition to invigorating a bunch of trucking engineers, CVG’s experience with the Ford GT project produced a lot of valuable knowledge about new materials and techniques.
“We worked with carbon fiber and super-formed plastic aluminum skins for doors,” Miller says. “It’s a very light, strong resilient material and has a lot of potential for us. Plus we worked on new extrusion technologies. These are all things we can take back to our core business with us.”
Along with a new level of prestige.
“It’s not unprecedented for somebody outside Ford to win a Henry Ford Technology Award,” says Ford’s Goodnow,” but it is very rare. It’s considered the highest achievement for scientists and engineers in the automotive field. Those guys at CVG are very good at what they do and we’re glad we had them on our team.”
Miller sums it up: “Receiving this award which is given for the highest level of technical achievement is a testament to the efforts and technical abilities of our CVG team members.”