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The Dodge Caliber from proposal to plastic
March 1, 2006, by Bill Cawthon
Almost exactly one year ago, DaimlerChrysler unveiled the Dodge Caliber, a new concept vehicle, at the 75th International Motor Show in Geneva. At this year's Geneva show, which just opened to the public, the production version of the Caliber is taking its first bows in Europe.
The Caliber is a new crossover vehicle that replaces the Neon in the Dodge lineup. A tall station wagon available with all-wheel drive, the Caliber combines functionality and compact size with car-like comfort, decent fuel economy and a low base price under $14,000. There's even an SRT4 version boasting a 300-horsepower engine. I got to see the new Caliber at the Houston Auto Show in January and was impressed that the company best-known for its Hemi engines could also do such a good job with a smaller vehicle.
At the Dodge exhibit in Geneva, there are a number of Dodge accessories including 1/87 scale models of the Caliber in Sunburst Orange and Inferno Red. While such things are common for the Mercedes-Benz side of the DaimlerChrysler family, this is a first for a Chrysler Group product. If you visit the New York International Auto Show or Dallas Auto Show next month, you'll be able to see similar models at the Dodge display.
To give you an idea of the process that takes a model from initial consideration to your retailer's shelf, I thought I would share the Caliber's odyssey.
The Caliber model got its start last May with a suggestion from Brand Sense Partners, LLP, Dodge's licensing agency. Ricko, Ltd., a Hong Kong-based modelmaker, was discussing some new projects for its 1:18 and 1:87 product lines. Initially, the idea was to produce a model of the concept, but when everyone looked at the timeframe necessary to go from license to model, it was decided to make a model of the production version. The original idea was that the finished model would be ready in time for the Caliber's worldwide introduction at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
By the time all the licensing process was completed, it was August and there was already a problem: there was no reference material for the production version and time was already running out to have the model ready by January.
CAD (Computer-Aided Design) files are an important part of modern automotive styling and engineering. They are also important to modelmakers as they significantly reduce the time and cost of preparing tooling models and designing the molds. But there are different types of files and the type Ricko needed, an "IGES" or "Initial Graphics Exchange Specification," weren't available. Dodge had Alias/Wavefront OBJ files, which Ricko couldn't use. So all the necessary files had to be converted from OBJ to IGES.
Contrary to popular belief, CAD information isn't all that's needed to create an accurate model. Equally important are detailed photos of the real vehicle to show contours and details impossible to get strictly from CAD file. As Dodge had not even begun to build the first production Calibers, the photos didn't exist.
In the meantime, word had already gotten out that Ricko was going to make the model of the Caliber and order inquiries were beginning to come in. By late summer, Ricko had already orders for a model they didn't have the information to make. It was the beginning of serious ulcer time.
It wasn't until late September that the CAD files became available. Work began on the tooling model but it could not be finished until photos became available.
In early November, photos were finally available and the tooling model was finished in a few weeks. Now it was time for the first approval. The precious tooling model was sent from Hong Kong to California to be reviewed by Dodge. Fortunately, Dodge quickly approved the tooling model and it was time to move to the next step: creation of the molds.
It was only a few weeks until the molds were ready for their first shots of molten plastic. The pieces were shot and the first plastic model, which is called an "EP" or "Engineering Pilot" was made. By this time, it was only a few weeks until Christmas and the EP had to be approved. Once again, Dodge moved quickly, approving the sample "with changes" meaning there were modifications needed but it was okay to move ahead with the process.
As Chrysler shuts down for the holidays, Ricko had to wait until after New Year to try again.
Almost all of the changes were made, the molds were polished and an improved sample was sent for approval in mid-January. I say "almost" all the changes because one of the requested changes was for some additional chrome on the door handles, but when Ricko checked the reference photographs there was no chrome, so it was felt perhaps the reviewer had been referring to the original concept model, which did have chrome. That "almost" came back to bite them.
Production was set up; there was still a chance to get some completed models out before Chinese New Year.
But final approval was not received. Dodge asked for a change in the trim color and once again asked for the chrome to be added. This time new reference photographs were supplied. It turns out that the top-of-the-line Caliber R/T AWD does have chrome door handle inserts and that was the version Ricko was making.
By now time had run out for a late January delivery. It was almost Chinese New Year. If you're not familiar with it, Chinese New Year is the major holiday in China. Unlike New Year's in North America, where it's a party New Year's Eve and a day to recover afterward, Chinese New Year is a celebration that lasts nearly three weeks as workers in almost all businesses leave for home a few days before the beginning of the festivities and don't return until a few days after the celebrations are over. Even banks take an extended holiday.
In the meantime, Dodge needed sample models to show in Geneva. As soon as the factory re-opened after Chinese New Year, a half-dozen samples were air-freighted to Europe.
At the same time, the last revisions requested by Dodge were made and an FEP, or Final Engineering Pilot, was sent in for approval.
That approval was received the day before yesterday and production went into full swing. The first models will start shipping within a couple of weeks. In order to keep costs, and prices, down the models destined for the retail market will make the trip from Hong Kong to America by container, then by truck to Ricko's distributors. The distributors will ship their advance orders to their retailers. This whole process can take up to six weeks, meaning it may be the end of April before the model is ready for you to buy.
While in reality it has taken slightly less than seven months to go from license to plastic, the entire process of taking the Caliber from a suggestion to a model you can buy will have taken almost a year. Believe it or not, that's not unusual.
It has also been a learning experience. From almost a year, Ricko hopes to be able to reduce the time required bring a model to market to about six months, not including shipping. This is important for two reasons. First, the clock on a license starts ticking when the license is accepted, not when product begins shipping, so the faster a model gets to market, the faster the modelmaker starts recovering its investment. Second, the major hobby trade shows come in February in Europe and in the fall in the U.S., so being able to show new products at both is important.
While I have been privileged to get advance glimpses at new models, and even offer advice, this has been the first time I have been part of the "gestation" of a model from its beginning. I have learned a lot about the workings of the model business including an appreciation of why new models seem to take so long to appear and why modelmakers are so secretive about the new models upon which they are working. It's not just protecting their product from competitors; it's about being able to deliver the product when it's promised. There are so many things that can delay the process, it's best to keep quiet so you're not constantly going back to your customers with revised delivery dates.
I have also gained a new appreciation for the people involved in the process. I have gotten to know the people engaged in the manufacturing, like Tony Tsui, Ricko's general manager and Emily Leung, who spends at least 26 hours a day trying to keep everything together.
In addition, I have also met, either in person or electronically, some great people at Brand Sense Partners like Jennifer Campbell, Sarah Frumkin and Jim Bur. It's been a pleasure getting to know them.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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