Q&A with Ford’s director of product programmes for Ford Asia Pacific and Africa (APA)
In his role as Ford’s Director of product programs for Asia Pacific and Africa (APA), Ian Constance is responsible for all aspects of Ford vehicle product development, from strategy and planning through design and engineering to launch in the region’s markets. Based in Bangkok, Constance works closely with Ford’s regional product development centres, as well as partner operations within Ford’s global organisation. On behalf of Lotus Engineering's e-magazine, proActive, just-auto’s editor Dave Leggett recently caught up with him.
DL: What’s occupying your time and getting your attention at the moment?
IC: It’s pretty clear that times are quite tough everywhere right now and it’s not just the auto industry – it’s pretty much everyone and everywhere. Nobody is escaping the difficult economic conditions we have at this time. We are challenged in a number of ways, in terms of keeping the business moving forward.
Where we are spending a lot of our time now is keeping focused on the ‘One Ford’ plan. A key tenet of that is making sure that we deliver a core product portfolio around the world that meets our customers needs – giving them what they want and what they value. So that’s a guiding message. It’s about being global and leveraging all of our global capabilities and activities in the context of a core product range. It’s somewhat of a guiding light in these difficult times.
There are also a lot of bright spots for us, too, in terms of the product offering. We are also now launching the new global Fiesta in China. This has been a key project for us over the last couple of years. It’s a fantastic product that we are very proud of and extremely confident about how the Chinese market will adopt it.
We have recently launched a major update to the Focus car-line across the region, building on the established strength of the Focus range, and there’s a freshening on the Ranger pickup truck, too.
We have also just launched the all-new Falcon in Australia and New Zealand – and that car is receiving new accolades every day (voted car of the year in New Zealand, for example).
DL: From a product development perspective and working across such a big and diverse territory, how are you organised?
IC: Ford has a number of different development sites around the world and around the region. Key development activities take place in APA (Melbourne, Australia) in Europe (Germany and UK) and in North America. Additionally, we are working with one of our centres down in South America, plus there are also other development centres in our region, in China and in India. The key global ones though are in Australia, Europe and North
DL: What do the Chinese and Indian centres do, modify global Ford products for local consumption?
IC: Yes, in both China and India we start off with the localisation of products that come from elsewhere. We have a level of capability in both of those centres. In India they are working on a regional and a somewhat global product that is going to come through the system. In China they are working on some of our freshening activities and it’s a question of developing capability.
DL: And you are happy with the way these two centres are developing in terms of skill sets and design and engineering capabilities?
IC: Absolutely. The level of capability, the level of enthusiasm, the desire to learn and also the desire to deliver the products in these low-cost centres constantly impress me. These guys have a good level of education and are prepared to work very hard to learn and to deliver the products.
DL: And do you think the significance of these low-cost centres will increase inside Ford as they take on more global work?
IC: Definitely. There’s a desire to combine activities and to network our activities in the region and in low-cost centres – in Asia and the Americas – with our traditional development centres in order to leverage the low-cost element to support the capacity and capabilities that we have elsewhere in the world.
It’s about networking and integration, really. It’s a process that has been ongoing for a number of years now.
DL: To pick on one model, the Fiesta, can you give me an idea of the main differences between the car sold in Europe and the versions sold locally?
IC: First of all, if you get in to a Fiesta in China or in Thailand, you will find that the car is instantly and undeniably recognisable as a Fiesta that you might have sat in Europe or anywhere else. It is fundamentally the same product. It looks the same, has got the same styling, feel, switchgear in the same place and so on. It’s a Ford Fiesta with Ford DNA. The building blocks of the car – things like the platform – are the same.
There are some differences though. In China, for example, there is a different displacement on the engine and that’s to give our consumers a price point that falls within the tax regime that applies in China. In addition to this, we’ve also tailored Fiesta for the local market. One example is the steering feel, which we’ve made lighter at low speed to suit Chinese customer preferences. You would see a surprisingly high level of automation even in plants in low-cost markets.
Another example: some new powertrain technology will be introduced with the Fiesta built at AutoAlliance Thailand, which will drive significant improvements in fuel economy in automatics. Why don’t we do that in Europe? Well, it will come to Europe, but auto transmission numbers in Europe are much lower, so we are using Asian introduction to drive that refinement. These are subtleties that are driven by local market tastes and consumer requirements.
And there’s another overlay on top of that, which is the need to understand trends in local tastes and fashions. There are of course, a lot of global trends and fashions which is why these global products work, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of colour and trim you also need to know the local market and be attuned to its preferences.
I should also add that in some parts of the world you have to wade through big puddles in the monsoon season, the likes of which you wouldn’t see in Europe, so you have to ensure that the car can operate absolutely faultlessly in those conditions. But those are generally pretty minor things.
DL: Would the suspension set-ups be tweaked for rougher road conditions?
IC: Yes. Once you get off the beaten track in some of these markets you will find the road surface becomes broken and pretty hard work, so we look to give people an easier ride.
DL: From a manufacturing process standpoint are there significant differences of approach to manufacturing at different locations around the world?
IC: Generally, the way we put the car together – what we term the ‘bill of process’ – is identical throughout the world. That standardisation of the process means we can drive a good quality of event in terms of the assembly process.
However, there may be some subtleties that change. For example, in a low labour cost environment you may choose to build up more of the vehicle in your own factory rather than bringing in a module from a supplier. But that depends on the prevailing business conditions. But I would stress that the basic, fundamental process of putting the car together will be the same everywhere.
DL: I guess the whole manufacturing process then might be slightly more labour intensive in Asia, where labour is relatively cheap, than say in Europe?
IC: It can be, but against that there are quality-critical processes where you have to have automation, even in a low-cost country. Fitting windscreens and some body-shop processes, for example, really have to be automated to get to the level of accuracy and quality that we demand in our products. You would see a surprisingly high level of automation even in plants in low-cost markets.
DL: How do you see prospects for electric vehicles and hybrids in your region?
IC: There’s no doubt that there will be some interest and some development but my view is that these products in the near-term will struggle to become mass-market products unless there is a significant legislative push behind them.
The reality is that they are still very expensive and affordability is absolutely a key concern in these markets. Okay, there are competitive pressures but there is also the question of disposable incomes – and they remain significantly behind Western markets across much of Asia.
I think there will be activity and it will be interesting to see how governments legislate for it. China has indicated quite strongly that it wants to be a leader in this area, so that’s one to watch.
And of course we’re watching very closely to see what governments may do and to make sure that we are able to react swiftly to any legislative or regulatory developments.
DL: What about biofuels?
IC: We see ourselves as a leader in this area. We were the first company to put E20 product in the market here in Thailand – we were well ahead of the curve – and we are bringing out more products that can run on 20% ethanol. We also have E85 vehicles and up to even greater levels of ethanol in our portfolio that we can bring to market.
There are lots of big challenges ahead, but the one I would focus in on is that I’m part of a huge global network. Clearly, in markets like Thailand where there’s still an agricultural surplus, it’s really interesting. In Malaysia palm oil is farmed and available in large quantities for bio-diesel products.
So there is plenty of activity going on.
What we have noticed is that there are unique solutions for different markets depending on their circumstances. It varies. Thailand is interested in ethanol, Malaysia is specialising in palm oil for biodiesel and in China there is an emerging interest in the research and development of cellulosic ethanol.
DL: To stay with China for a moment, how’s your relationship with Chinese partner Changan in terms of product development? Do you work closely with them?
IC: We have a good and very solid relationship with them. They have their own product development group that develops the Changan line of products and we don’t get involved with them, but what we do have is a level of capability within our joint venture plant that supports us with localisation and ongoing development activities on the vehicle. That works very well, and we also have our own embedded people in that environment. We are also training up some of the local young, bright engineers and it’s all working very well.
DL: How do you see the capabilities of the supplier base – in terms of product development and working with you on that – which you deal with in your region?
IC: It’s obviously a huge range, from basic suppliers who churn out parts to the big global suppliers who are setting up in the region. But we are also working with Asian based suppliers who are fully integrated suppliers and have the ability to fully support our development activities.
And there are a number of those suppliers who also support us globally, not just in the region.
There are some in Japan obviously, but I’m also talking about suppliers here in Thailand and in China.
DL: Do you expect your close relationship Mazda in the region to be impacted by Ford selling part of its Mazda stake?
IC: We still have a number of successful joint activities around the world and have a lot of joint plants in the APA region. There’s AutoAlliance Thailand here in Thailand making a range of pickups and that will carry on. There’s also the Changan Ford Mazda Automobile (CFMA) production facility in China, which makes Mazda and Ford B-car products. And there is AutoAlliance International (AAI) in the US.
On the product development side we will continue to work with them on those joint products.
DL: What do you see as the big challenges ahead, in your role?
IC: There are lots of big challenges ahead, but the one I would focus in on is that I’m part of a huge global network – North America, Europe, Australia, China…
This week I have been working on a very interesting product with my colleagues from South America, for example.
The reality of that is that we have to keep lines of communication open and make sure the network is running and functions as it should.
We have to make sure that we can feedback real time consumer customer data to colleagues working on product in other parts of the world. And it’s a two-way thing – making input to colleagues working on product for us and also us working on a product that’s going elsewhere and listening. We have to keep a razor-sharp focus on the customer and also on cost, to make it affordable for the customer.
And that’s basically a 24-7 business and the challenge is to keep abreast of all that, keep the network going.
DL: What gives you the most satisfaction in your job?
IC: I really enjoy delivering a product to market that we can believe in. I recently did a drive as part of the final sign-off for Fiesta in China and I drove it back-to-back with competitors; it’s just a superb product. I know you’d perhaps expect me to say that, but it really is tremendously uplifting to bring a product that you really have great confidence in to the market.
And then when the product has been on sale and people – friends, relations, customers, people you meet on the street – tell you how much they really like it…that’s the reward and that’s really what it’s all about.
And that’s basically a 24-7 business and the challenge is to keep abreast of all that, keep the network going.
Please note that this interview was first published in Lotus Engineering's proActive.
Ian Constance is Director of product programs for Ford Asia Pacific and Africa, a position he assumed in early 2006. In this key product development role, he is responsible for all aspects of Ford vehicle product development, from strategy and planning through design and engineering, to successful vehicle launch in the region’s markets.
Based in Bangkok, Constance works closely with Ford’s regional product development centres, as well as partner operations in Europe, North America and Japan to create products focused on the Asia Pacific customer of needs. Constance has development responsibility for Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo, Transit, Ranger pick-up, and Everest and Escape SUV’s.
Prior to this appointment Constance was chief program engineer for the all-new Ford Focus for AP&A markets, where he led a dedicated team of engineers in its design and engineering to specifically meet the wants and needs a new generation of customers. The Focus was developed with information and consumer insights gained through extensive customer research across the region’s markets.
Constance also served as vehicle integration manager with the Vehicle Engineering C-Car team at Ford of Europe, where he was responsible for the development of the C1 Global Shared Technologies concept. This concept defines a common process to manufacture new vehicles and collaboration to develop a broad
portfolio of vehicle system technologies.
Constance has extensive experience in automotive engineering, including powertrain technology and driving dynamics. Some of the products he had been involved with include the first generation Focus and Mondeo. From 1996 to 1999, Constance worked with the Powertrain Planning and Strategy division for small cars. Earlier, he worked on Powertrain Engineering for C-Cars for more than three years.
Constance first joined Ford of Britain in 1987 under the Engineering Undergraduate Training Program while pursuing his Engineering degree. He officially joined Ford as Manufacturing Engineer in 1991, advancing his career in product development and engineering with significant success.
Constance has a bachelor’s degree in Engineering from Aston University and his master’s in Automotive Engineering from Loughborough University, United Kingdom.
Constance is a British citizen, and is married with three children.