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Holden on the hunt for more designers

Designs on success: GMH design director Richard Ferlazzo in front of one of his most famous creations, the Efijy concept.

GM's local design centre depends on local universities for its graduates

26 Jun 2014

THE closure of Holden’s manufacturing operations in 2017 will not diminish the company’s need for a stream of accomplished design graduates from three of Melbourne’s universities in coming years, according to design director Richard Ferlazzo.

Mr Ferlazzo said the design centre at Fishermens Bend would continue at full speed after the closure of its vehicle assembly and engine plants in Victoria and South Australia.

As GoAuto has reported, the studio will, however, lose its status as a major model development centre, while the company’s engineering operations will also be heavily curtailed.

“There is plenty of work globally for us,” Mr Ferlazzo told GoAuto, adding that head office had assured Holden that the design operation had a bright future.

He said the end of production for the locally-built Commodore and Cruze would have little effect on the design centre.

Since the completion of the VE Commodore back in 2004, the design centre has mainly been working on international projects, collaborating with the other eight GM design centres around the world.

“We are always busy. You can’t catch up in design. You can never be ahead of schedule,” Mr Ferlazzo said ahead of this week's VACC Automotive Design Awards in Melbourne.

“You should always be on the next project already. You can’t start on a project too soon,” he said.

Mr Ferlazzo said the design awards were important in keeping design skills visible to potential students, and draws attention to the fact that there are careers available in design in Australia.

“Most people in this country wouldn’t have a clue that design departments even exist here.

“We still have politicians come through and their eyes are like saucers when they see what we do here.

“These sorts of awards are exactly what we need to keep people aware that these skill sets are in this country and are still needed. It’s a great award for that reason and our involvement in the universities is ongoing.”

He said the company was heavily involved with the students during their courses and helped the universities keep their design hardware and software up to date so students were ready to start work when they are hired.

Most of the graduates hired by the three local car-makers come from the courses at Monash University, RMIT University and the Swinburne University of Technology.

The Fishermens Bend centre works collaboratively on many international models but will no longer get the brief to handle a whole project, like it has done with the Commodore and the Chevrolet Camaro, for example.

Instead, the studio will be focused more on assisting other studios and tweaking cars for the Australian market.

“We might find that the way they have been styled may not be a perfect match for here and it’s not a big deal to change certain parts of the car. It can be a whole front end, so it’s more Holden-looking.”

He said the Holden design centre was one of the most accomplished in the GM world, and one of the oldest. It is the only design centre outside Detroit that has a fabrication shop and the skills to make concept cars.

“We have 140 people in our design department. That’s a good-size critical mass and includes all the disciplines. They are not all designers.

“We have all the disciplines needed in a modern studio. In fact we have an extra advantage in that we have a very capable fabrication department capable of building concept cars from the ground up, which only ourselves and the main studio in Detroit choose to do in-house.”

Many of the other nine studios either cannot do that, while some choose not to, contracting the work to outside fabricators, he said.

“But it gives us a great advantage because we have at least one or two concept cars being built in our shop at any one time.”

This gives an extra dimension to the skills and the experience that employees in the centre can gain.

Mr Ferlazzo said GM head of design Ed Welburn was a “big supporter” of the Australian studio.

“He frequently goes into print about how he has a high level of confidence about the work we do here,” Mr Ferlazzo said.

“He already knows we can build concept cars to the standard he likes. In fact, ours are very well made, maybe too good in some cases. It’s top quality show cars.”

He said Mr Welburn recognised the maturity of the local design centre, which occupied its current building 50 years ago last week, although there had been design work going on for decades before that.

“When this building was built in 1964 it really was a showpiece. It was a watershed moment for the real professionalism that then came to this country.

“A lot of Asian companies weren’t even making cars then. They certainly weren’t designing them or engineering them to the same level.”

Mr Ferlazzo said the design operation – officially part of GM Design – benefitted from being in a country where there is a long-established automotive culture.

“Because people grow up with cars here, and they get them and like them, you can take someone from this country out of the design school, take them to Holden and Ford, and they quickly become a well-balanced, skilled designer.

“There are some countries where you just can’t do that. No matter how much you try, they just don’t have the cultural connectivity with cars and they don’t have the people or the experience in the studios to impart the knowledge.

“It’s experience, stuff you can’t buy easily,” he added.

Mr Ferlazzo said there was no significant disadvantage stemming from the centre’s Melbourne location, given all the communications technology that is available.

“The technology enables constant communication. We can do it with high-res imagery, high-res still photography and video photography.

“There is an advanced design studio in California that does identical work to what we do. It’s a six-hour flight from Detroit to LA, so you can’t drive.

“They operate the same way as us. They share their information with Detroit the same way we do, video conferencing and everything else. If you can’t drive there, you can be anywhere else in the world.”

The time difference can be a little uncomfortable, however.

“We have rooms set up day and night. We can be in here at 5 in the morning or 10 at night. Tomorrow morning I have one at 1AM. It’s just the way it goes.”

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