Blair Sonnen: Developing Parts for the C7 Corvette

Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing series of editorials penned by aftermarket insiders, we asked Pfadt Race Engineering’s Blair Sonnen about what their game plan is for parts development once the 2014 C7 Corvette is launched. Here’s what he shared with us…

A full coilover set can easily have upwards of 75 unique parts in the bill of materials

As a company that is constantly trying to re-evaluate the directions we pursue and what we focus our engineering efforts on, learning of the new Corvette C7 platform that is soon to be launched is a double-edged sword.  Obviously, we love the Corvette and more specifically, the technology that it exhibits, the lap times it produces and the bang-for-the-buck value that defines it compared to other cars in similar performance categories.  But will the latest offering from GM’s long line of performance machines need any improvement right off the assembly line? We can only speculate at this time.  But assuming it does, companies like Pfadt have a hard task ahead of us and difficult decisions to make.

One of the first tasks in making aftermarket parts for the C7 will be benchmarking the stock components as soon as they become available. This graph shows the compression/rebound damping versus velocity for stock C6 Z51 and Z06 shocks.

We often use our social media outlets like internet forums and Facebook as a means to make informed decisions about what our customers want to see.  When we do this, we often ask our followers/customers to decide on specific things like aesthetics (color and finish, for example), and more often than not, the question gets raised “why don’t you just offer the option for your customers when they order?”  The answer is pretty straightforward: it is extremely cost prohibitive to do so in most cases.  When you launch a new product design, there are a lot of considerations that need to be taken into account.  Launching product for the C7 will be no different.

A Lot of Moving Parts

A full coilover set can easily have upwards of 75 unique parts in the bill of materials, each with their own production process and schedule.  Every one of those parts obviously needs to be designed, which can take weeks of scheduling and a lot of man-hours.  But it certainly doesn’t stop there.   It is important that each one of those designs transition through the manufacturing process as seamlessly as possible.  This requires each part to be designed with manufacturing in mind, to the appropriate tolerances for the specific process/manufacturer, heat treated if needed, assembled/welded if applicable, then coated/anodized with the appropriate spec, and assembled into a final kit with packaging. 

One thing you might not have considered is that even the packaging needs to be designed for an all-new product - at least if you want it to arrive intact and in good shape.

The assembly itself can vary based on the specific application (think drag race coilover versus track spec coilover). During all of that, quality control processes/testing get interjected at various points, to maintain accurate and precise component builds.  If parts are not built or treated to spec, then even more scheduling headaches come into play.  In the end, damper dyno testing confirms the valve code, and final durability testing takes place to ensure performance is up to spec.  Quite frankly it’s a pretty complex process to manage when you are building hundreds of kits in one batch; multiply that for many product lines offered and you can start to see really what’s involved in bringing a new product to market, and that’s omitting any consideration given to sales forecasting for production scheduling.

If we don’t have the machine in-house for a specific machine operation or finishing process (and we are constantly bringing more of that in-house), we need to source that locally or find a different supplier who’s cost model is efficient and meets our bottom line requirements.  That introduces another companies’ production scheduling priorities and lead times (and delays) into the mix.  This all needs to be accounted for for all 75 components, even if we control it in house.  Dealing with outside suppliers can be super-efficient and effective in mass-production, but it is a double edged sword as you are at the mercy of your supplier when parts are not delivered on time.  

Multiply the Difficulty

Back to the original question at hand: “why don’t you just offer both options for customers?” Given the explanation of the process above, you can see that adding a couple of parts here and there with different anodizing colors creates a whole chain of new processes to manage.  And even more importance would be placed upon the scheduling of production and re-ordering points for product builds because each “option” we have results in separate sales paces and inventory management.  In addition, creating the new colored versions of specific parts decreases the batch quantity we would be manufacturing in, which in turn increases the production costs exponentially and would result in a higher priced product for the consumer.  

Just fitting the car isn't enough - there has to be enough room for mere humans to actually install it without needing an extra joint between elbow and wrist...

So, it’s important that we get it right the first time with what consumers want, even if it means turning a few away who would be purchasing specifically because the product matches a certain color scheme or look they were hoping for.  

What does this mean for C7 parts development? It means a lot of hard work and decisions to be made on what, if anything, will need improvement.  Luckily, companies like GM afford us the luxury of making CAD computer models available to us as a development resource.  So, we can take a semi-advanced look into the chassis engineering behind the Corvette and make informed decisions on what products we want to pursue and where we think our customers will want to upgrade. 

From Simulation to Reality

The costs of making a prototype can be easily 10 times the final product cost

Once we get our hands on a C7 we will be able to thoroughly test it and develop a game plan for areas to pursue. The cost of all of this is significant. While the CAD models save us time on the design end, computer analysis will never be able to replace the real-world scenarios where it is being installed on cars by dealers and individual customers in their driveways (who need proper clearances to turn a wrench) and being used hard for 100,000 miles.  So for that, we need to produce prototype assemblies and prepare the final product for volume manufacturing. 

Bench testing has the advantages of being easy to document and confirm, but real-world testing is always necessary.

The costs of making a prototype can be easily 10 times the final product cost, as making a small volume of anything will cost you.  After the prototypes are produced and installed on our test vehicle, they need to be put through a rigorous durability testing procedure that simulates thousands of miles on the road every hour.  Very few machines exist that can replicate this testing and because of that, we had to make our own.  Which, of course, factors into the actual cost of production in some way.  

You can start to see why an aftermarket company like us is VERY excited to pursue a new platform like the C7, but at the same time needs to prepare for the huge investment and undertaking that it entails for our engineering staff, machinists, fabricators and general suppliers. From beginning to end it is not uncommon for a single product to take 6 months from initial concept to packaged and on the shelf for sale. 

There are many factors that result in various lead-times it takes to get a product to market, and I have mentioned but a few of them here.  As we continue to grow and bring more and more machines in-house, we can have even more strict control on the entire process from beginning to end and mitigate any potential delays associated with outside suppliers.  This, in the end, is always the goal, as it gets a better a product in the hands of our customers, faster.  And anyone looking to upgrade their brand new C7 will require exactly that. 

About the author

Blair Sonnen

Blair Sonnen is the Brand Manager for Pfadt Race Engineering, a company devoted to a wide array of powertrain, chassis and suspension products for popular LS-based platforms including the C5 and C6 Corvette. Pfadt Race Engineering has been racing Corvettes since 2007 and have turned their success in racing on track, into designing and manufacturing go-fast components for the street. A recent expansion of their business has seen them bring more and more production and manufacturing in-house as their product catalog grows with more and more components. blair
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