Ford aims for new 'halo' products and more female engineers, says COO Barb Samardzich

  • 02-Dec-2014 08:17 EST
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Standing in front of a potential automotive "halo" for Ford: Barb Samardzich, COO Ford of Europe with the new Mustang.

Ford has a lot riding on the new Mustang. It isn’t just another Ford model; it is a statement of capability and international intent, and no one appreciates that more than Ford of Europe (FoE) Chief Operating Officer, Barb Samardzich.

“I think it will have what I call the intangible benefit of really providing a 'halo' to the Ford brand. Mustang is iconic in the U.S., and I think it is in Europe too. Take the Mustang logo off and just look at the vehicle’s design, its styling, and its features, including a highly efficient 2.3-L EcoBoost engine and independent rear suspension. It’s a bold statement externally and internally.”

These are not the words of a hyperbole-fueled marketeer or salesperson, but a highly qualified mechanical engineer. Samardzich joined Ford in 1990 from her role as a thermal design engineer in Westinghouse Electric’s Nuclear Fuels Division, to begin a career ascent that took her into the Blue Oval’s hierarchy, with roles that included Vice President, Powertrain Engineering, responsible for engine and transmission engineering worldwide. Other very high-level appointments saw her leading development of small front-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive vehicles; responsibility for the design, engineering, and development of nine key Ford and Lincoln vehicles; and Chief Engineer for F-series Super Duty commercial trucks.

“Next year is a testament to our ‘One Ford’ strategy, with Mustang coming to Europe in right-hand drive form together with the Edge, also in right-hand drive,” she said.

Samardzich is cautious about just what Mustang will be up against compared to potential rivals’ technology, price, styling, and image: “Mustang is seen by us as more of a stand-alone type of vehicle, and by customers as fast, fun, and affordable. If it wasn’t called Mustang, and Ford said they were just bringing a sports car to Europe, then I think it would be a credible model to enter its segment.”

Is it a premium product? There, Samardzich treads with the care of an engineer. For MY2015, Ford will be putting a Vignale label (or "halo") on the Mondeo, giving it a posh interior and other visual cues of upmarketness; Samardzich prefers to use the phrase “more premium” to categorize this.

Ford Vignale

That apparently means more premium than other versions of the model but not premium in the context of Mercedes-Benz or Audi. The Mondeo Vignale will slot into this stratum; the European Mustang perhaps to come degree.

Ford has tried this in Europe before, notably with the Ghia design house name, which sat, inter alia, alliteratively with the Granada sedan and wagon. But a wood dashboard, the smell of a leather interior, and extra kit does not create a premium product. However, Ford plainly still likes to nibble at the edge of the premium market for reasons that may be difficult to understand when it ranks so highly in its natural habitat.

Samardzich said she drives a Focus as her every day car in Germany, where she is based, and that it has some “very premium appointments.”

She added: “And there is a real opportunity now for higher margin products. SUVs are the fastest growing segment in Europe, and customers are spending more to acquire these than they would for an equivalent regular car.”

So Ford’s company vocabulary includes “more premium,” “very premium appointments,” and “higher margin” products. It will be interesting to see how these assets manifest themselves in forthcoming models of which there will be many in Europe. In 2012, FoE announced there would be 25 all-new or “considerably refreshed” products over the following five years.

This means a hefty development spend at FoE’s three technology centers of Merkenich-Cologne, Aachen (both in Germany), and Dunton (UK). Ford does not break out all regional R&D budgets (although Dunton last year had £500 million to spend compared to £460 million in 2008) but its global budget for research, development, and engineering was $5.5 billion. Annual turnover for FoE last year was $28 billion.

R&D spend

The new models’ program will stretch towards the possible introduction of autonomous driving. R&D of its various technologies is “definitely a One Ford approach,” emphasized Samardzich: “We are already automating our vehicles with technologies such as pedestrian detection (we have just launched it in Europe—developed by our Aachen team—for the new Mondeo), collision avoidance, ACC, and automatic parking. Other technologies are being led in the US. We have a portfolio of technologies from which the vehicle teams can pick and choose what they think is right for their customers.”

An exception to the One Ford philosophy though, has to be some aspects of safety, with legislation continuing to differ on each side of the Atlantic, she explained: “Legislation causes more complexity than you think you need! Achieving mutual recognition of regulation homologation would be fantastic. We were hoping that with the free trade agreement between U.S. and Europe, vehicle safety would be part of the discussion. But I don’t see such regulatory convergence happening anytime soon. We—the OEMs—will be ready on autonomous technology long before the infrastructure is ready to take that technology.

“Governments are going to have to come to the party if they want autonomous vehicles on the road. Part of my job is to keep putting to them the opportunities and the potential of autonomous vehicles and to ensure they know what we can do.”

Legislation also covers reducing emissions and fuel consumption, and Samardzich is very much aware of the added costs this is bringing, particularly with regard to diesel engine controls: “Dialogue needs to be around the cost of emissions technologies to meet regulations. We spend a lot of time trying to make it as affordable as possible; once we have a technology solution, we try to optimize and take out costs.

“As a member of ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association), we have aligned our joint policies and make sure that governments understand the implications of regulations that may be coming down the line. We have been pretty vocal on that.”

The “billion dollar question” is how much new technology cost – particularly for diesels - a company is able to pass on to consumers, she stated: “The more you absorb, the more you affect your business, and it’s important for us to retain jobs and to make money. One of the hot topics is trying to understand how much pricing we will be able to get for emissions components.”

But despite these challenges, diesels remain a major part of FoE's product plans. The company is investing £500 million at its Dagenham diesel plant that will produce the next generation 2.0-L, initially for the Transit van but with broader applications to follow.

One aspect of legislation that is welcomed by OEMs is the forthcoming move away from official, but arguably artificial, NEDC test cycle fuel consumption figures to real-world numbers. “We don’t do test cycle beating,” said Samardzich.

With its downsizing programs to achieve greater fuel and emissions efficiency, notably via its EcoBoost engine range, Ford is looking at further technology to improve efficiency. One of those is cylinder deactivation: “I think it’s a technology that you will see from us.”

The need to constantly update engines and their associated systems has changed power unit architecture life. Samardzich said 25 years was once typical: “Now, to keep up with the pace of emissions level changes, we need architecture that is as flexible (regarding displacement and equipment) as possible. This means that the basic architecture of the new 2.0-L diesel is likely to be in production for only 10 years.”

Other changes to support efficiency include an increasing use of aluminum. The new high-volume F150 truck (some 600,000 units of the outgoing generation manufactured over the past 12 months), makes very extensive application of the material, and Samardzich forecasts its increasing use by Ford, particularly for closures.

Female engineers

While emphasizing the technology advances within the auto industry, Samardzich stressed the need to recruit engineers of both genders.

For a male engineer, her own career path would be regarded as outstanding; for a female it is exceptional. Samardzich—and the company—want to consign such gender-specific observations to history.

To underline that, Ford employees in Europe recently took advantage of a “Take your daughter and a friend to work” event, said Samardzich: “We showed them, from laboratory to test track, just what an engineer is and does. When I graduated in mechanical engineering in the 1980s, typically around 5% of engineers (graduating in any engineering discipline) were women; now it is about 17% in the U.S., even lower in some European countries. But it could be much higher. There are so many exciting opportunities and challenges ready and waiting for them!”

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