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Ford Australia’s R&D to help global growth

Big plans: Ford Asia-Pacific product development vice-president Trevor Worthington.

Australian workers to benefit as Ford’s Asia-Pacific region takes on more projects

Ford logo14 Mar 2014

By MIKE COSTELLO

FORD’S Melbourne-based research, design and development operation stands to prosper as the company’s Asia-Pacific operations takes on a number of new projects, says its Shanghai-based product development vice-president Trevor Worthington.

The first step in this growth arrives in the third quarter of this year, when Ford opens its revamped virtual reality studio. This studio, opened in 2012, allows designers to tweak pilot vehicle designs immersed in cyberspace.

While the Blue Oval’s biggest bread winner remains North America, more future model projects will also be led by its Asia-Pacific (and up to this year, Africa) region, as markets including China, India and those within the ASEAN group of nations continue to flourish.

Ford has previously said it expects 60-70 per cent of its growth over the next decade to come from the Asia-Pacific region and Africa. In the 2013 financial year, this region reported a $415 million profit, and saw volume and revenue grow by 30 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.

As the regional ‘hub’ of research, design and development – capable of creating product from “go to whoa” – Australia is positioned to play a key role. Ford’s Melbourne facilities include a proving ground at Lara, the virtual reality centre, and numerous facilities to sketch, style and pre-fabricate new cars.

Mr Worthington spoke with GoAuto this week at the Ford Suppler Trade Fair in Geelong, an event that brought together Ford parts buyers and struggling Australian components-makers to find potential opportunities for them to supply Ford’s overseas plants with parts.

The product development chief confirmed Ford’s Asia-Pacific unit was creating a suite of new products and technologies, much of which remain top secret. As a member of the global ‘roundtable’ that allocates responsibility for projects to various regions, Mr Worthington is well-placed to keep his region, and thereby Australia, in the Blue Oval’s global loop.

“There’s a cycle plan process that we have at the company … and our view is we are definitely going to take on more product, absolutely, the expertise that we’ve got and that cycling process, every time you do that you get better,” he said.

“And so we are doing more product right now than clearly we’ve let on, that’s the usual process, there’s more product we’ve got our hat in the ring for right now.”

Mr Worthington stopped short of confirming this could mean more engineering jobs opening up in Australia, but said there was “no reason” why these levels would not grow if or when Ford’s global bosses green-lighted more projects for this part of the world.

“Now whether that translates to more people or picking up programs, that’s a business thing that happens every month or six months, so I can’t stand here and say that we are going to get bigger (staff levels) than we are now,” he said.

“We’re part of the global cycle planning process, and where the best place for us to go is a decision that we make twice a year at the company.

“I'm at that table, and if it’s the right thing to do, to grow beyond what we’ve got now, that's what we’ll do. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t get bigger if it’s the right thing to do.”

Past projects of Ford’s Australian R&D centres include the Ranger ute and Indian-market Figo, while the Chinese (and potentially Indian) market Escort concept is also believed to have been largely an Australian project. The forthcoming Ranger-based Everest SUV is another Australian creation.

The final Falcon and Territory updates are now in the last stages of testing, bringing to a close the era of Ford designing the cars to be built in its factory next door.

Of the roughly 3000 engineering or scientific staff working on new vehicles across the Asia-Pacific region, about 1100 are based in Victoria, alongside a further 350 technicians that make these creations tangible.

Once all three local car-makers – Ford, Holden and Toyota – stop building cars here in 2016-17, Ford will become Australia’s largest automotive employer, and the only one of the trio of departing manufacturers to retain a full research, design and engineering presence here.

Holden will continue to design cars in Australia, and will play a ‘mentoring’ role to less-mature GM design studios in places such as India. Toyota’s design and engineering future here is less clear.

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