An Inside Look at Automotive Platform Sharing

Pros and Cons of Not Having to Start from Scratch
by Jason Giacchino

It seems like with each and every automobile released, careful examination reveals that the model actually shares a platform with another existing model.  Stranger still is that sometimes it appears the two models in question have absolutely nothing in common with one another.  This phenomenon calls to mind questions such as exactly what does platform sharing mean and why do manufacturers bother with it in the first place?

To answer these questions, it helps to imagine yourself as an automotive manufacturer. Now imagine you have an idea for the next big car ““ something sure to kick-start the stagnant automotive industry.  To get this model into production, you would need to build a factory to manufacturer the roughly 30,000 individual parts that comprise a single car.  Actually these days it generally requires anywhere from three to fourteen plants to get the job done.  So rather than start completely from scratch with your new car, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to use as much technology from your existing line as possible?  These assembly plants are already built, stocked, and running, the techniques already proven and the employee force already trained.

Thus is the concept of platform sharing: using established design, engineering, and production efforts across various models, types of vehicles and in some cases different marques!  So fundamental is this concept that many analysts conclude it would be completely improbable to make a profit by introducing a new model on account of the fact that the costs associated with starting fresh would be too high.

So the idea of sharing an automotive platform may seem obvious enough, yet why do we sometimes encounter vehicles that seem to have absolutely nothing in common with the platform they are allegedly based on?  The answer to this question lies within the very definition of what comprises an automotive platform.  

The most commonly accepted bits that make up a platform are the Chassis/ floorpan: The sheet metal stamping that serves as the primary foundation or frame of the vehicle.  It is the chassis that will house most of the structural and mechanical components of the finished vehicle. Steering mechanism, front & rear suspension configuration, the vehicle’s wheelbase and the location of the engine are all consistent on account of the chassis platform.  Body panels, interiors, feature sets, engine options and so on can be as unique as the manufacturer desires regardless of the platform down below.

While the primary advantage of platform sharing is pretty cut and dry from a manufacturing standpoint, there are actually a few key disadvantages to the system worth talking about as well.  Among these includes market saturation.  Imagine the potential SUV buyer who has to decide between the Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, Saab 9-7X, and Isuzu Ascender; all of which are based on the exact same platform.  Continuing along with that theme, many auto makers proved to be their own biggest competition as a result.  This is often witnessed with luxury models whereby a potential buyer discovers that, for example, the Cadillac they are considering actually shares a platform with a much more affordable Chevy counterpart, and is thus unable to justify the up-charge.

Finally another legitimate concern born out of platform sharing is the risk of increased product recalls across a manufacture’s entire line.  Should a problem or safety issue develop at the platform level, every vehicle to make use of that chassis would be subject to such concerns.

However, even taking these concerns into consideration, the technique has proven invaluable in its ability to save manufacturer capital.  That Ford, for example, with its plans to use its global C-segment platform on ten US market vehicles, ranging from the economical Focus compact to the seven-seater C-MAX minivan. As hard as such a wide range of vehicles sharing a platform is to imagine, distinctive engine packages and sheet metal will ensure you’ll never mistake any of the 10 vehicles for one another, but they will indeed all share much of the same mechanical structure.

To further illustrate the influence of the technique of platform sharing, consider the following quote from auto analyst Herbert Demel: “In 2009, the world’s top 20 platforms accounted for 29 percent of global production, underpinning 18 million vehicles. This number is about to double to 35 million units in 2015, when the top 20 platforms will cover 38 percent of global output.”

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