Ford’s Asia Pacific design and engineering facilities in Melbourne have the potential to branch out and lead the development of a range of more upmarket global models than we’ve seen from them before, according to a pair of senior staff in the design and vehicle integration departments.
The blue oval brand’s Australian R&D hub is perhaps best known for leading the development of the global Ranger ute (sold in 180 countries) and Everest SUV (pictured above), as well as the Escort for China and Figo for India.
This is in addition, of course, to multiple generations of the Falcon and its subsequent Territory SUV derivative, though unlike the aforementioned projects, the fruits of those particular labours have not ventured beyond our borders to the same degree.
Vitally for Australia, while Ford is slowly winding down its Melbourne and Geelong car- and engine-making factories ahead of a shut-down in October 2016, its 1100-strong R&D centre that can make an entire model line from “a white sheet” is going nowhere. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Pictured above: Ford Escort concept.
Ford invited media to its top-secret Melbourne facility this week to have a look at its upgraded virtual reality (VR) centre and to see behind the scenes its process of taking a car from sketches though to 3D renderings, clay models, prototypes and finally, the cars you see on the road.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Australian facility is a token gesture or fig leaf from Ford. It is one of the brand’s trio of global R&D hubs, and is the mature centre of development and project leader for all vehicles assigned to Ford’s Asia/Pacific region, headquartered in China and with a satellite in India.
The only rivals for it anywhere in the Ford world are at global headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan and Ford of Europe’s home base in Cologne, Germany. Come 2017 and the end of Holden and Toyota’s local manufacturing arms, Ford will become Australia’s biggest automotive employer (at least from a design/development/manufacturing perspective).
Naturally, then, the end of local manufacturing, meaning the end of Falcon and Territory work, has only liberated Ford’s local team to either lead global projects or contribute to work being done by the US and Germany.
Pictured above: Early Ford Everest sketch.
This is facilitated by Ford Asia Pacific product development vice president Trevor Worthington, who calls the shots from Shanghai but as an Australian himself fights hard for the local team, having served as the project leader for the original Territory SUV.
At its core, says Ford Asia Pacific design director (aka the man in charge of all vehicle designs at the site) Todd Willing, Ford’s local arm is assigned with being the “expert” of the Asia Pacific region, which encompasses China and India, the world’s two most populous nations.
And while cars such as the Escort and Figo serve a need, tastes and preferences in these nations are increasingly closing in on those found in the West, opening the door for Ford’s local arm to get its figurative hands dirty creating vehicles both sportier and more luxurious than the more utilitarian projects that have rolled out its doors before.
"Product I'm not going to talk about today, that we’ve done, isn't in the realms of what we would have traditionally done in the past,” Willing told CarAdvice.
Pictured above: Updated Ford Ranger mule spied by CarAdvice.
“We obviously can’t talk about future projects, but we are seen as the experts of the region and understanding the market and its customers, and if you look at the vehicles in that market, those markets, they do go from more value-oriented offerings right up to the full whack you can get anywhere else in the world.
“I think you can read into that, I think we’ve proven to be very efficient at delivering on those value offerings that you said, but at the same time given that those markets are not necessarily developing markets… they’re very fast becoming mature and their expectations are higher than you might find even in North America or Europe in some cases.”
This, says Willing, means there is no technical or policy-driven reason for Ford Asia Pacific not to be assigned the sort of global projects that would allow it to focus on more upmarket vehicles. We stress, however, that the company has not confirmed what it is working on in any form.
“We will specialise, in terms of global projects we specialise with the requirements of the customer in our regions, so if that means what you’re suggesting (that more upmarket cars could be on the cars) then anything is possible.”
Pictured above: Ford's FiVE virtual reality centre in Melbourne's outer suburbs.
Furthermore, Willing said, his team might well be assigned a role as designers for a car engineered in Dearborn, meaning the lines you see on Ford US or other international product may originate here in Australia.
Willing, interestingly, took over the role as regional design chief from American Joel Piaskowski, who in May was reassigned to the post as design director for Europe. Further illustrating the parity between Ford Design in the US, Europe and Australia, ex-Ford Asia Pacific design boss Christopher Svensson currently serves as the design director for the Americas.
Also speaking with CarAdvice was Matt Sullivan, the Ford Asia Pacific digital integration manager, who is responsible for taking a design through to a more advanced stage of development. Sullivan said his staff levels were project-driven, and fluctuated thereby, and that projects were assigned to his team depending on need.
For instance, early on the weight of numbers will focused on hi-fi computer simulations of crash safety, vehicle integration and aerodynamics, as well as assessing NVH issues and how to best manufacture a given set of plans.
Pictured above: Ford's seatbelt airbags.
But once this is done, the prototype phase begins and vehicle testers based at Ford’s Victorian proving ground at the You Yangs takes over, and put test vehicles up against the elements both here and overseas. This also includes testing vehicles created by Cologne and Dearborn.
“It’s a global product development group, each of the groups has general responsibility for certain vehicle types and areas. You look at North America and the light truck, they always do F-150 and don’t give it to other regions.
“But what happens is you get other vehicles that come along that are determined to be part of their freshening cycle…. and that work is divvied up around the globe.
“Trevor (Worthington) would love to go to big board meetings and say ‘we’ll take that one thanks very much’, but there are people outside of him that look at the overall product plan and say ‘where is the Asia Pacific team in their cycle of products they’ve got right now can they physically take on work, or are we under-utilised in Dearborn?’
Pictured above: A testing rig for Ford's SYNC 2 infotainment system.
“If Dearborn or Germany are maxed out then we may get more work, but conversely it goes the other way. It’s not always coming in our favour at the end of the day. We’d love to put our hand up and take everything you can do but it doesn’t always happen that way.”
For those interested, some highlights at the R&D facility include the FiVE VR chamber (not even Cologne gets one of these) with its futuristic headgear that allows testers to find flaws in cabin design and panel placement from bits and bytes, rather than inspecting a real car.
There is also the world-class You Yangs proving ground where Ford tests a vast array of global product (these testers also venture to the Simpson desert, the mountains of China and the muds of Thailand), the clay-modelling and 3D rendering team, the styling studio, fabric and materials division and its research arm that works in tandem with most of Melbourne’s universities.