Special Report on the Motor Show (2): Europe envies Japan's model strategy: Four-yearly cycles of model replacement mean Japanese products grab a disproportionate share of attention, writes Tony Lewin

AMONG the complaints most often levelled at the Japanese is the accusation that they have perfected the art of built-in obsolescence.

From cameras and videos to cars, the Japanese are cast as the villains in an evil conspiracy to undermine European industry.

The plot runs something like this. Strong domestic demand gives Japanese companies a firm base from which to export, but frequent model changes are required to keep demand at an artificially high level.

Four years is the life-span of the typical mass-market family car such as the Toyota Corolla. Each change of model costs money, but that does not worry the Japanese buyer - the costs are borne by the artificially high prices over in Europe.

Translated into a European context, the four-yearly cycle means that Japanese products can grab a disproportionate share of attention. Typically, a staple European model may outlast two generations of its Japanese equivalent.

The argument against frequent changes is that the model's identity becomes diffused, and secondhand values depressed. The handling and distribution of spare parts is also more complicated.

Yet the arguments for regular model replacement are more convincing. The more often the design is redrawn, the better the styling can keep up with customers' tastes; engineers will be able to bring the benefit of technical innovations to the public more quickly, and with advancing production technology a new car is likely to be cheaper to build - and better built - than its predecessor.

Support for an abbreviated model cycle comes from a surprising quarter, though for rather different reasons. Calculations by engineers from Volkswagen, the firm whose very name is a byword for durability and permanence, show that in theory the optimum point to recycle a car is at the age of five or six.

Remarkably, thanks to technical progress the new car will have such an advantage over the old one in terms of economy and emissions that the energy it saves over its lifetime will easily outweigh the extra energy expended in its construction.

Economy and emissions are something of a side issue, however, for it is on the broader industrial front that the Japanese have made the real impact with their regular model replacement strategy. In a sense it is nothing more than a logical extension of the lean production systems that have made Japanese industry so efficient; the conventional wisdom that it is necessarily expensive to develop so many new models does not always hold true. Figures from the late 1980s researched by the International Motor Vehicle Project illustrate the point clearly, giving the lie to the notion that new models are wasteful of resources.

According to the project, Japanese producers averaged 1.7 million engineering hours per new car against the Europeans' and Americans' 2.9 million to 3.1 million; the Japanese development times averaged 46 months (now down to about 36 months) while the Europeans managed just under 60.

Nor do the Japanese flood their projects with engineers: their staffing averaged 485, compared with 904 for the Europeans. What is more, while one in three European products ended up being delayed, for the Japanese the figure was only one in six.

European factories took a year to return to normal productivity and quality after a model change: for the Japanese it took 17 weeks.

So while there has been a lot of European catching up since that survey was carried out, it is nevertheless clear that the Japanese can develop roughly twice as many cars as the Europeans for an equal effort and, presumably, investment.

The consequences of this in the marketplace are striking. Between 1980 and 1990 the Europeans barely managed to increase the number of models on offer, yet the average age of those models rose from 2.5 to about five years; over the same period the Japanese model portfolio doubled from 45 to 90, yet the average age of those cars remained below two years old.

If variety and modernity are important factors in a car's appeal, it is plain that the Japanese producers must have the contest sewn up.

Yet there are signs that having kicked this mighty development roundabout up to today's high speed, some Japanese want to get off, but dare not, for fear of losing vital competitive advantage. The causes are the same as those for the rest of the Japanese motor industry's recent ills: weakening domestic sales failing to offset heavy investment costs abroad.

Nissan was the first to flinch, announcing cuts in working hours across the board - a move which put pressure on its design resources.

A parallel influence is that of the Japanese transplant factories in Europe and the US. Both Nissan and Honda have stated that European models are unlikely to be replaced on a four-yearly cycle. In cases where it might prove awkward for European, American and Japanese versions of the same product to be out of step, it would be logical for the latter to move to a five or even six-yearly cycle.

There is just one barrier to such a move. Toyota, Japan's domestic market leader with almost half of all sales, has not yet shown any inclination to budge, and each of the second-league producers still reckons it would be suicidal to be the first to make the move towards longer product cycles. All are waiting for Toyota to set the ball rolling.

Other factors are also beginning to point in favour of lengthened cycle times. The advance of simultaneous engineering has brought the typical model development time down to 36 months, something which might be expected to facilitate rapid model renewal. Yet brief development programmes can be exploited in a different way: to gain the maximum customer feedback from the old model, and to ensure the latest possible design cut-off point and thus a product much better suited to contemporary requirements than one 'frozen' two years earlier.

What Europeans should envy is not the fact that the Japanese change models so rapidly, but the efficiency in design, development and production that enables them to do so with so little disturbance. That, rather than unnaturally compressing their model cycles, will give the Europeans their best chance.

(Photograph omitted)

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