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The Associated Press

New safety lab will help Ford bring vehicles to market faster

By Dee-Ann Durbin / Associated Press

DEARBORN -- Ford Motor Co. said Tuesday a new $16 million safety testing facility will help get vehicles on the road eight to 10 months faster, part of a broader, $65 million endeavor to trim expenses and adapt more quickly to the fast-changing market.

Ford now takes about 28 months to get a vehicle to market once the design is complete. The No. 2 U.S. automaker wants to cut that to 18 months by mid-2007, putting the company on par with competitors like Toyota Motor Corp., Ford vice president for product creation Phil Martens said.

The change is critical for the automaker, which has fallen behind Asian competitors in getting fresh vehicles to consumers. Ford's U.S. sales were flat in the first seven months of this year.

Ford is spending a total of $65 million to upgrade vehicle testing facilities. It's revamping test tracks and has equipped 8,000 engineers with new mobile phones and wireless laptops so they can move more freely between labs and test tracks, Martens said.

"This is a complete reengineering of our development process," he said.

Martens wouldn't reveal how much money Ford will save because of the upgrades but said they will shave up to 60 percent off the cost of vehicle production.

"Costs will come down at every level," he said.

Ford says the new safety testing lab near its Dearborn headquarters has one of the most advanced crash simulators in the world. The simulator consists of a vehicle interior set inside a rigid frame and attached to a fast-moving hydraulic sled.

The simulator allows Ford to see what would happen to the interior of a vehicle in five different types of crashes -- including frontal and side impact -- without actually having to destroy an expensive prototype vehicle.

Ford said the new sled will allow it to conduct 10 tests each day, compared to two each day with its current machines. Ford tests finished vehicles at a separate location.

Ford's new facility has a separate lab where engineers can test how well vehicles prevent head injuries. In that lab, a mechanical arm slams the heads of crash test dummies into the side of the vehicle at different speeds and angles.

Ford also has a lab that simulates what happens when occupants aren't wearing safety belts or are sitting very close to the steering wheel.

Martens said Ford began testing its new development process with the 2006 Ford Fusion sedan, which will be in showrooms this fall. The company took about 25 months to develop the base model of the Fusion, he said.

Ford shares were unchanged at $10.15 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
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