By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Peter Reyes recalls that 15 years ago, it took nine months for Ford Motor Co (NYS:F) to make two possible designs for a vehicle frame. Now, the chief engineer of the revamped F-150 pickup truck says he can create 100 different examples in that time.
Recent advances in computer-assisted engineering, or CAE, were one key factor that enabled Ford to take one of the biggest gambles in its history - making the hugely popular F-150 largely out of aluminum while retaining the brawniness of steel.
The scope of the bet also reflects Chief Executive Alan Mulally's efforts to strengthen Ford's balance sheet over the last eight years and drive a cultural change that allowed the No. 2 U.S. automaker to take more risks, analysts said.
"If you look at Ford over the past number of years during his tenure, they've grown in terms of their confidence," IHS analyst Mike Jackson said. "Alan pushed them to say, if we're a leader, we need to stretch ourselves."
The new F-150 will be unveiled at the Detroit auto show on Monday and is expected to go on sale late this year. How Ford executes the launch of the most profitable vehicle in its lineup will be closely watched by investors and rivals.
Ford has been dogged by quality issues in recent years, including seven recalls on its Escape crossover. That coupled with the extensive nature of the overhaul raises questions about whether the F-150 launch will be disrupted.
But if, as analysts expect, the redesign wins over truck buyers, it will cement Ford's dominance over rivals General Motors Co (GM) and Chrysler Group LLC (UAWREC.UL) in the segment and maintain the F-150's position as the best-selling U.S. vehicle.
"It's conceivable that once these trucks are out that people will perceive the Ford truck as being an entire generation ahead of the competition," said John Casesa, senior managing partner at Guggenheim Securities.
"If they do that - whack the competition and keep executing - it would be extraordinary because that almost never happens unless you invent a new product type, a new segment," he said.
'BETTER AND BETTER'
The F-150's overhaul is more extensive than the redesign of GM's Silverado and Sierra trucks unveiled last year, analysts said. This is partly because Mulally's turnaround of Ford began well before similar efforts at GM and Chrysler.
The new F-150's body is 95-percent made up of high-strength aluminum alloys similar to those found in military vehicles and its frame is 77 percent made of high-strength steel, up from 75 percent mild steel in the current model.
In some versions of the F-150, these changes amount to a weight reduction of around 700 pounds. Ford said the new F-150 is also more resistant to dents than the current model, which already features an aluminum hood.
Ford used CAE tools to digitally experiment with more lightweight materials and test those components against "a blizzard of stiffness and strength requirements," Reyes said.
The use of more lightweight materials has triggered changes to the way Ford builds the trucks at its plants.
"Through the past 25 years, we've gotten better and better with our stamping technology," said Peter Friedman, who works in research and advanced engineering at Ford. "Our CAE, our virtual build have become better and more accurate and our manufacturing process has become more efficient."
Friedman's division was "instrumental" in developing the alloy and manufacturing processes on the all-aluminum body of the Jaguar XJ sedan 15 years ago, he said. This department was already thinking about how to redesign the F-150 in 2008, about two years before the program launched, he said.
These efforts roughly coincided with Mulally's push for boosting gas mileage across Ford's lineup to meet future U.S. fuel economy standards and changing consumer tastes.
Ford will offer a 2.7 liter turbocharged engine on the new F-150 for fuel conscious truck buyers. The F-150 also comes with cameras that can provide the driver with a 360 degree view of the car. Designers lowered the belt line by one inch, which allows for easier access to the pickup bed, Ford said.
The F-150 may be the final chapter of Mulally's tenure at Ford. He said last week that he plans to stay at Ford through at least the end of this year ending speculation that he would leave the company to lead Microsoft Corp. Mark Fields, Ford's chief operating officer is expected to succeed Mulally as CEO.
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)