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Big 3 auto R&D workforce set to top 2100

More to come: The Australian design team that came up with the acclaimed Toyota 86 Shooting Brake concept continues on in Toyota Australia’s product planning and development division that has grown its workforce by 50 per cent in three years.

Manufacturing is dying, but Australian automotive engineering and design powers up

8 Feb 2017

THE combined automotive design and engineering workforces of Australia’s traditional big three car companies – Ford, Holden and Toyota – is on target to top 2100 workers this year, despite the demise of local car manufacturing operations.

All three companies have been hiring skilled staff to handle a heavy workload of vehicle development and new-model launches in booming market conditions, both in Australia and abroad.

At best count, the collective R&D operations currently have about 1950 employees on the payroll, but this is set to rise through 2017 to at least 2100.

The most active is Ford which is adding another 250 engineers, designers and technicians this year to take its Victorian-based Asia-Pacific Vehicle Development operation from 1500 to 1750 employees by 2018.

Holden has been hiring at least 11 extra hands for its powertrain calibration team, taking that unit beyond 130 engineers.

Spread between Holden’s engineering centre at Fishermans Bend and the Lang Lang proving ground, this unit is part of a 300-plus R&D team that also includes engineers doing chassis tuning and 130 designers and technicians working on at least three production vehicle projects and at least one concept car at any given time.

While Holden has shed about 700 engineering jobs since the demise of its global Zeta platform program – the basis of the home-grown Commodore and Chevrolet Camaro – it appears to have steadied the ship at 300 designers and engineers, with potential to grow.

Some of these engineers have responsibility for the chassis development of the V6 version of the next Holden Commodore to be imported from Germany next year, while others are working on projects for Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Opel.

The GM Design Australia studio is said to be fully employed on design tasks and concept fabrication for General Motors affiliates, even knocking back work.

Toyota has confirmed it has expanded its Australian product planning and development division workforce to 150 – a 50 per cent increase in three years.

However, Toyota lost about 160 engineering jobs when the Toyota Technical Centre Australia (TCC-Au) shut its doors in Melbourne last June.

This centre – run separately from Toyota Australia and reporting directly to engineering head office in Japan – had worked on projects for global models such as the Camry, for which it developed items such as body electronics.

Most of the engineers now employed in Australia by Toyota are involved in Australian Design Rule homologation and fine-tuning imported models for the local market.

The product planning operation that was formerly based in Toyota’s Sydney offices joined this vehicle development team in Melbourne in 2012.

Led by Toyota divisional manager Mark Dobson, this unit is currently housed in a building just down the road from the Port Melbourne head office but is destined to move by 2020 to new facilities at the Altona factory site in Melbourne’s west where manufacturing is scheduled to close in October this year.

Says Toyota Australia public affairs manager Beck Angel: “The department is continuing to go from strength to strength and is not impacted in any way by the end of manufacturing.”

The development part of the Toyota unit includes Toyota’s design operation that, while small compared with the Ford and Holden design juggernauts, continues unabated into the post-manufacturing era.

In recent years, its portfolio of designs have included the well-received Toyota 86 Shooting Brake concept revealed at an 86 fan event in Sydney last year and a HiLux TRD concept shown at the Bangkok motor show.

By far the biggest R&D operation in Australia is run by Ford which is not only working on next-generation Ranger and Everest for global markets – this time including the United States – but also a born-again Bronco SUV for the North American market.

Ford president Mark Fields last December flew into Australian to announce a 50 per cent increase in R&D spending here – from $300 million a year to $450 million – along with an extra $50 million on facilities.

Ford’s designers and engineers are also working on projects for Ford luxury brand Lincoln and a budget small car based on the current Fiesta, presumably for China and/or India.

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