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It’s not unusual for fledgling motor manufacturers to indulge in a bit of creative reverse engineering when starting out along the long road to success: Remember Nissan’s evolution from their license agreement to produce the Austin A50? But what happens when groups of individuals, or a company, blatantly "copy" a current design and manufacture this as their own?
For many years the Chinese car industry’s blatant copy-cat approach has raised eyebrows amongst the established manufacturers. Chiefly because of the breach of accepted global trade legislation, but secretly, also because of the speed and efficacy with which these "designs" are brought to market. There are several examples of this; such as the striking Esprit-like JAC Heyue SC, which managed to get Lotus’s design language to production faster than Lotus themselves.
Focusing on the aesthetics more than under the skin mechanicals, this form of engineering is not only rapid to implement but also very cost effective. An example of this is the Shanzai Lamborghini which is a 99% accurate replica of the Lamborghini Murcielago LP64 which normally retails for about $400,000. Granted the Shanzai isn’t strictly speaking road legal, and it’s underpinnings are taken from a modest Toyota MR2 producing only 175 HP with a leisurely 200km/h top speed; but at only $65,000 certainly creates interest.
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Even though these may not be examples of the mainstream automotive industry in China, the fundamental principle of making vehicles that are primarily affordable to the masses permeates as a national drive to make cars attainable for China's emerging middle class; people earning 50,000 to 60,000 Yuan a year ($7,900-$9,500).
This uniquely Chinese approach is a product of the extraordinarily fast rise of its auto industry. As the country opened up to the West, car makers were faced with a relatively poor home-market only serviced by sophisticated products made abroad. Global automakers could sell their pricey cars to rich Chinese, but local Chinese automakers had to come up with cheap cars for the masses in a very short time.
Chinese industry focuses on affordability.
As the Chinese economy globalised the resultant growth in the economy spurred the creation of more than 100 registered automakers across China by the early 2000s: But they lacked expertise. The best fit solution in coming up with affordable cars was simple: copy the designs of foreign auto makers.
"Around the turn of the century, China began embracing an approach it described as ‘reverse-engineering.' It was essentially a fancy word for copying," says Dai Ming, a senior engineer at CH-Auto Technology Corp, an independent design and engineering company based in Beijing. "The problem with those copied cars was that the Chinese were able to emulate the shape of a foreign car, but not its soul." Often these cheap knock-off models suffered from poor driveability and in some cases were even dangerous.
In this concerted effort to reduce costs Chinese car makers identified expensive, non-critical features and functions in foreign designs which could be eliminated. Luxuries and intangibles such as doors that close with a secure "thump," or even power windows and passenger-airbags were sacrificed. The result was often dubious quality, reliability and durability, and the industry soon garnered a reputation for suspect quality, often exemplified by irritations such as bumpers and door handles falling off after a few years of service.
Despite the shortcomings of this design philosophy it shook the established thinking of many executives of big foreign manufacturers, forcing them to acknowledge the threat posed by China's model of creating "good-enough" cars.
"This was a warning shot to the established engineers who told their management time and time and again that this is the minimum cost they can achieve with their existing design and production methodology," says Shiro Nakamura, a top Nissan Motor Co. executive and the company's chief designer. "Now the Chinese are saying they can cut another 30, 40 percent of the cost."
As part of this cost cutting, China again challenged the traditional thinking of "time to launch". Established players such as General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp need four to five years to come up with a new car designed from the ground up: Chinese manufacturers achieve this in just two and half years by deploying an abbreviated design process.
Illustrating the effectiveness of this approach is the Jiangsu Kawei K1; a copy of the F150 unveiled at the recent Beijing Auto Show. At $16,000 the K1 costs about 10% of the $160,000 a genuine "Built Ford Tough" will achieve on the "grey market". For this reduced price the consumer gets a look-alike F150, down to the distinctive headlight shape, wheel arches, bumper insert, and tailgate and fender vents that are clearly inspired by the Raptor.
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True to the Chinese mantra though, under the skin the K1 is markedly different: Only available in two-wheel-drive and powered by either a 140 hp petrol or 105 hp diesel engine, both designed by Mitsubishi and mated to a 5-speed manual transmission, the K1’s top speed is only 130Km/h.
"Perhaps the Chinese achieve their low cost by sacrificing quality standards," says Nakamura. "But in many ways their way also points to ‘over quality' or ‘waste' we have built into our conventional design process over the years."
Chinese design studios reduce time and save costs.
By deploying cutting edge technologies such as Computer Assisted Design and 3D printing, local design firms such as CH-Auto, IAT Automobile Technology Co. of Beijing; and TJ Innova Engineering & Technology Co. of Shanghai continue to drive advances in affordability and even quality.
These design studios are responsible for engineering seven to eight out of every 10 Chinese produced cars sold into the home market. Using these design and engineering firms, Chinese car makers have effectively created a shared pool of home-grown automotive technology.
Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co, which owns Swedish carmaker Volvo, was another benefactor of this approach, when in 2005 they turned to CH-Auto for help on the Panda project, one of China's most popular small cars. CH-Auto was responsible for the exterior styling and engineering of the underpinnings, while the rest was handled by Geely.
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Although CH-Auto and Geely still selected an existing top selling car to emulate, they made a clear departure from copying. Selecting the Aygo, a "city car" that Toyota produced in the Czech Republic, engineers at CH-Auto first studied and tested the Aygo and its components, with the help of three-dimensional digital scanners, to collect data on the design and performance.
Thereafter components were manufactured, firstly, by adapting parts made in China to match the specified function and performance. If suitable local parts weren't available, they worked with suppliers to create new ones by simplifying the scanned Aygo designs.
Reduced safety testing to save costs.
Further cost reductions were achieved by employing computer crash simulations to reduce the number of crash tests from the 150 typically conducted by leading foreign manufacturers, to a mere 20 to 25. By so doing Geely saved at least 200 million Yuan ($31.57 million) and two years in development time.
By limiting the number of crash tests, skimping on frills, simplifying designs, using cheaper materials and in a departure for the industry, outsourcing most of their design and engineering, Geely have produced a car costing only 40,000 Yuan ($6,350) in China and approximately 5,000 Euros abroad. This is less than half the price of an equivalent entry-level Toyota.
There’s no doubt that because of it’s size and age the Chinese auto market is an important one. However there’s also no doubt that an insular auto industry has a limited future, and with this in mind China needs to develop an independent industry that can compete with it’s global competitors on all fronts – not only cost.
Autocar – China makes a Lotus (Vicky Parrott)
Reuters – Special Report: China's car makers cut corners to success (Norihiko Shirouzu).
Jalopnik – buy a surprisingly good Lamborghini (Benjamin Preston)
FoxNews – China blatantly copies (Gary Gastelu)
Peter Els is a technical writer for Automotive IQ