Mazda - bringing Japanese auto culture to Europe

Mazda has had turbulent times in Europe over the last 20 years, with shifting alliances, an incomplete product range and an inefficient delivery chain but the OEM is actively addressing these challenges as Simon Duval Smith reports. 

These missing elements have been thoroughly addressed says Jeff Guyton, President and CEO, Mazda Europe and Senior Managing Executive Officer, Mazda Motor Corporation (Global). "We are at or near our record for market share in Western Europe, in 2018 we are looking forward to owning about 1.5% of the market. We are also being very proactive in our finished vehicle logistics and in servicing our customers’ needs better through improved interaction with our dealer network." 

Differing sales styles

The Japan car sales model is very different to that of Europe or the US; an OEM might have six different retail streams or styles of outlets, and the relationship between the salesperson and the customer is much closer and longer-lived. These styles of retailing have tended to influence some of Mazda's supply chain, as Guyton tells me. "At the overall level of the supply chain, from the manufacturing site to the dealer and thence to the customer, our model is US/European traditional but the way that we engage with our dealer partners is unique. We focus on trying to be easy to do business with as an OEM. We think that the dealer network, premises etc, need to be attractive not only to customers but also to bankers, to keep investors excited about our dealers and we try to promote a sustainable dealer model, by encouraging them to invest in multi-use facilities for example." 

Manufacturing in Europe - a question of scale

Mazda's sales numbers in Europe have not yet risen to a point where a European assembly or full manufacturing facility is justified but this may not be the case forever as Guyton tells me. "We have said many times that we do not have a plan to have a manufacturing footprint here [in Europe] and that remains the case. It has to do with whether one can find efficient economies of scale and we have much larger scale potential in Japan or in the US." 

Logistics challenges

I ask Guyton about the logistics challenges that Mazda faces in finished vehicle transportation, considering its very long-distance supply chain, stretching from Japan to Europe. "We bring finished vehicles to several ports in Europe and we operate a common specification for vehicles for different markets. To some extent, there is a common stock available for dealers who share the compound with us." This brought me on to ask Guyton if the high number of vehicles built for stock, and not to customer/dealer order, was due to the sheer length of the supply chain, coming as it does from Japan. He says it is a little more complex than this. "We do have a long supply chain; our dealers order their own cars, we make recommendations to them on which models and specifications are selling well and they make their purchasing decisions. This is happening three months before production and, with that pipeline, we also make it possible for the dealer to modify the vehicle that he has ordered in order to meet a customer's requirements. About 45% of our cars are built to order, either a bespoke original order or a modification order, for a vehicle that has been specified for stock by the dealer and then changed to suit a customer order." 

Dealer-led logistics and flexibility

This approach should keep unsold vehicle stocks low and it seems to work for Mazda, Guyton says. "When the vehicles arrive in Europe, most of them flow through the port very quickly, on their way to the dealer and then the customer. We keep very few cars in the port or in parking areas because the dealers have ordered what they and their customers want." While this approach, and the vehicles coming from Japan, may mean slightly longer order times than some European OEMs can provide, Guyton says that the accuracy of the orders is an important feature of Mazda's supply chain and order fulfilment. "What we strive for is to have the right vehicle delivered to the dealer and thence to the customer, on the right date and to exactly the desired specification. Also, our system allows us flexibility; if a dealer changes his mind about an element of the vehicle order specification, like the colour, another dealer will be able to pick up that vehicle from our pooling system. Leaving vehicles in this common stock pool for a short while allows them to be distributed most efficiently." 

Customisation and modification

This subject prompts me to ask Guyton about the level of customisation carried out on vehicles after they leave Japan. He says that Mazda tries to complete vehicles at the plant. "The trick here is that, currently, the vehicle coming off the end of the line in Japan should be the homologated vehicle. Therefore, once you bring it to Europe, you can't make any changes that would affect this homologation, such as tyres and other legislated components. Of course, there are some other parts which are customisable and we do some of this in Europe but try to avoid it." 

There has been a trend towards using logistics providers to carry out PDI work and also some accessory fitting and lid customisation and Guyton says that Mazda is keen to use its logistics partners for this. "We have most of this work carried out by our logistics partners." 

EV and autonomous vehicles

Mazda is collaborating with Toyota on future transportation solutions and part of this agreement is that joint research underway at present is for future projects. "The next generation of EV, connected car and autonomous vehicles is being studied by our joint venture [JV] but none of this work is being carried out on technology that is on the market today." I ask Guyton if this JV approach is to gain economies of scale or because Mazda cannot see itself as a pioneer or leader in advanced technology. "Scale is important but what is equally important is what Mazda can contribute to a new vehicle or technology programme. So a giant OEM will look at our models and realise that they are as good as any OEM's vehicles; they will realise that to make these advanced vehicles, Mazda has something special, something worth examining and working with in a JV." 

I suggest to Guyton that this could put Mazda into a 'testbed' position; where a giant such as Toyota could use Mazda as a laboratory for trying out new technology. "Yes, one thing we have become particularly good at is digitally modelling systems in a vehicle. This can save an OEM a lot of time and money as they would not need to build as many prototypes. Digital modelling is used by all OEMs but at Mazda we have to use it really efficiently as we do not have the resources of the big car makers. Both the attitude and the technology behind being able to punch above our weight are valuable qualities that we bring to the collaboration with Toyota. 

The MX-5's lean and efficient dynamic model

Talking about these 'testbed' type vehicles and digital modelling brings to mind the remarkable story of the MX-5. Inspired by a sketch by motoring journalist Bob Hall from Motor Trend magazine and developed in the UK by International Automotive Design (IAD), the sports car set new standards in handling, mainly due to its light weight and simplicity. The MX-5 is also an example of Mazda' s smaller scale vehicle development being used by a large OEM. The Japanese carmaker announced a joint venture with Alfa Romeo on a shared rear-wheel drive platform in 2012 but this was cancelled in 2014. In 2015, Fiat Chrysler announced the Fiat 124 Spider and Abarth 124 Spider, both based on the Mazda ND platform. In partnering with Mazda to resurrect the classic Fiat 124 Spider, Fiat Chrysler gained a halo sports car with all the difficult development work already done. Guyton evangelises about the principles behind the sports car. "I always tell people, at Mazda we hate weight, in fact we hate weight a little bit more than we hate cost! When you study the MX-5 you can see the ideas we had and how we had to achieve them on a limited budget. For example, we decided that we would need to use aluminium in the car and we asked ourselves 'Where are we going to put the aluminium?' We decided to use it in the bumper structures and in the roof where we saved weight in the furthest points from the centre of gravity and the centre of rotation. Making these extremities as light as possible makes the car handle better and is what we call the strategic use of an expensive material." I ask Guyton if, with the testbed idea in mind, could he see experiments with the strategic use of composites and other modern lightweight materials happening at Mazda, as the drive for lower emissions and greater fuel economy for internal combustion (i.c.) - engined vehicles grows? "Composites and other 'exotic' materials are expensive of course but I would not say never for Mazda. There is an ethos within Mazda that we still have plenty more to do with lightweighting and other technology development." 

SKYACTIV and the customer's sensation 

This prompts me to ask Guyton whether the SKYACTIV technology 'philosophy' will continue. Instead of betting billions on hybrid- and battery-electric vehicles, Mazda's SKYACTIV strategy is a comprehensive effort to substantially increase the efficiency of every element of every vehicle, beginning with engines and transmissions and continuing through bodies and chassis. Guyton says the technology is closely attuned to Mazda's customers' wants. "It's about giving customers great results in the real world. This applies to the body structure as well as the powertrain, it is truly holistic approach." I ask Guyton whether technologies such as SKYACTIV are effective marketing, as many of the system's features are invisible to the average customer; does investment in these innovations really pay off in sales terms? "As an example, the way we can explain what we do with the chassis element of SKYACTIV is to set ourselves this challenge: how do I give you, as a driver, the technological input for you to make the best driving decisions to make the best of your physical capabilities behind the wheel? One way of looking at it is, how we keep our heads stable when we walk; this is an amazing confluence of different technologies within the human body. This is something we all do without thinking about it. 

"For us at Mazda, we think about how we can create the structure and motion of the vehicle so that we allow the driver that same capability of what we could call chassis and body control. This philosophy extends into many different areas; you might perceive a bump in the road, when you drive over it but while you hear it, you feel it with different parts of your body. Your perception of this event is being influenced by all these sensory inputs and if we want to make our customer comfortable, we need to give them that sensation in a certain way; so that the sound, the motion and the pitch of that bump is transmitted in such a way that gives the brain the best ability to react to that event. This involves more than just dampening out a sensation; we have to consider what happens if the car was to bounce and then the noise came a second later, the mind would be confused, so that is not satisfactory."

A holistic approach to customer satisfaction 

I suggest to Guyton that this almost spiritual dimension to caring for its customers' comfort and safety has a strong Japanese cultural element. "Yes, there is something of the old Japanese culture in our approach, just as in the holistic way we design and build our cars, we also try to care for all the needs and desires of our customers, even those requirements that they may not know they have." 

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