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More public funding wanted for Ford Australia R&D

Growth vision: Ford's head of product development for Asia-Pacific, Australian Trevor Worthington, outlines his bold plans for the company’s local design and engineering division.

Ford Australia R&D needs an even playing field to “make hay while the sun shines”

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Ford logo9 Dec 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO

FORD’S head of product development for the Asia-Pacific Trevor Worthington says the Blue Oval’s Australian research and design facilities can function without additional government funding, but could struggle to grow and thrive without more access to the public purse.

This is particularly important, Mr Worthington said, because now is precisely the time when the company’s 1100-strong local workforce is primed to take on extra work and “make hay while the sun shines”, particularly when competing for work against China and India where domestic product development remains “nowhere near” Australia’s capabilities.

Mr Worthington’s comments on the state of Ford’s Melbourne-based R&D centre came a week after the company filed a submission to the Productivity Commission hinting that Australian taxpayers would need to dip back into their pockets to ensure the future of its intellectual division beyond the end of manufacturing here in 2016.

The Broadmeadows-based design and engineering centre, and other facilities including its research and development centre in Geelong and proving ground at Lara, supports about 1100 staff. The company claims to have invested $1.9 billion in Australia (on top of extra federal and state funding), including $200 million of its own money in product development during 2012 alone.

Notable global projects beyond the Australian-market Falcon and Territory include the T6 Ranger ute, its Everest SUV spin-off, the Indian-market Figo and the Chinese-market Escort concept.

“There’s all sorts of government assistance given across all different markets, and all we’re asking is to be on a level playing field here,” Mr Worthington told GoAuto this week while on a flying visit to Sydney for the global unveiling the new-generation Mustang sportscar.

“Our designers and engineers here are as good as any I’ve seen in the world, but if we’re competing against engineering centres that have got assistance then we’re potentially not going to garner the work I think we deserve to get.” Mr Worthington is well-placed to make the call on Ford’s local facilities: before embarking on an upward trajectory through Ford’s Asian divisions, he served as vice-president of product development for Australia, and led development of the critically acclaimed Territory SUV.

When asked if Ford’s Productivity Commission submission was an admittance that its R&D future hung on additional public funding, Mr Worthington came out swinging. “Absolutely categorically not”, he said.

“We’ve made a huge investment in R&D in Australia and put our money where our mouth is, but at the end of the day we’re competing against global product development centres that have various levels of government support. All were suggesting is we want be on an even playing field … and that we aren’t disadvantaged.” Mr Worthington said the real question wasn’t whether the local R&D centre could survive without more help – “I think it can operate absolutely” – but whether it could grow beyond its current position and leverage the decades of experience it had in unique product development.

“It’s a question of how do you make it thrive and grow,” he said. “We just don’t want it to be in the background. We want it to be a robust centre we want to invest in the design and proving ground facilities. We want to more than fulfil our capabilities, we want to grow and broaden our expertise because that’s what everyone else is doing.

“We need to take on the best people, invest in the best tools, and the rates (at which) we cost people – with where the Australian dollar is – and (despite) all the disadvantages we face with time zones, that people look to our facility as being efficient and delivering the productive outcomes they look for.” Mr Worthington echoed statements he made to GoAuto while in India earlier this year, that Ford’s Melbourne-based operations had the potential to take on more staff: “I would probably say the Australian workforce is going to grow, not by a lot, but it really comes down to the particular piece of the cycle we’re in, in terms of the work we pick up,” he said.

The context in which all this is occurring was particularly poignant, said Mr Worthington, because despite their respective rapid growth, rival centres in both China and India still lack precisely what Ford’s Australian division has in spades: long-term experience.

“We have an expertise that they just don’t have,” he said. “Platforms, suspension, engines we have a very broad capability I’m sure at some point they will get, but right now they’re nowhere near it.

“What we need to do is make hay while the sun shines, and be as efficient as we can be. That will help us protect ourselves when other companies that dream about having the capabilities we have, are there.

“Having lived in China, I think their ability to do that is probably further away than they think, because it takes a long time. You’ve got to have teams that have gone through that cycle a number of times.” When asked about Ford Australia’s clear delineation between the viability of making and designing things locally – its production lines will stop in 2016, but R&D will carry on – Mr Worthington said he hoped the Blue Oval, and others, could continue to make tertiary industries work here.

“If we can’t make the intellectual part of the industry work, regardless of whether its truck, car or plane design, if we can’t make that work in Australia, what are we left with?” he said.

“We have to make it work. We have great education facilities, a young and vibrant workforce with a sparkle in the eye like every other place, but the task for us is to give them the opportunities.”

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