The best place to catch Neil Ressler this summer will be in the paddock at a Formula One race. The sport is a passion for Ressler, Ford's 60-year-old vice president of advanced technology whose office is adorned with racing trinkets. He is chairman of Ford's Cosworth Racing subsidiary and sits on the management board of the company's new Jaguar Formula One team. But Ressler's job is more than just directing motorsports activities; he oversees the company's worldwide research and technology development, and it is said that counsel from the 33-year company veteran is regularly sought by Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. and President Jac Nasser. If Ressler is not at a Formula One race, look for him on the flight line at the Oshkosh Fly-In - he was instrumental in establishing Ford's sponsorship of the annual Wisconsin air show - or rumbling through his hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., in his vintage Cobra. He spoke with Staff Reporter Aaron Robinson. Edited excerpts follow:
How important is it to have a 'car guy' or 'car people' at the top of a car company?
I don't think you need a technical wizard. I don't think it's important to know the main bearing clearances or the camber and caster curves. I think you have to love the product, but you also have to be good at business and understand people. The problem with these jobs at the top is that they are not one-dimensional, and if you're a one- or two-dimensional person, it doesn't matter what the dimension is; you're going to have problems.
What are Ford's engineering and r&d priorities for the next decade?
Our main priority is safety and the environment. Safety having to do, obviously, with crash protection, but also crash avoidance and vehicle compatibility. With the environment, one at first thinks about emissions controls. Those are important, but we also have vapor control, and we have fuel economy, recyclability and ease of disassembly. It's not very glamorous. It's just hard work. It's the kind of thing you have to be very vigorous about.
How important is it to be first with new technologies?
I wouldn't say that you have to be first in everything. It's hard to be first in everything. You have to figure out where you're headed, and I think it's important to be first on some high-impact items. We decided a few years ago to be first with the refrigerant that replaced Freon, the one that was friendly to the ozone. We said, 'We can probably do this if we really work hard at it. So let's be first. Let's be the company that got rid of the stuff nobody wants and got into the stuff that people did want.' And we did.
But you can't be first at everything. If you're a large, high-volume producer, you weigh the benefit of being first in something in very low volumes against the impact of getting to high volumes early. Oftentimes, you end up not being first.
How do you decide which technologies you will be first in?
I think every company has some rationale for that. Some companies just like to be first. Take the Honda Insight. The path we're trying to be on is the one that gets us to an affordable, five-passenger, fuel-efficient vehicle. Given that that's our target, going down the path that Honda has gone down is like driving down a cul-de-sac. You have to make a U-turn and come back out again because that wasn't really where you were headed. Honda has decided, for whatever reason, that they want to get there first, quickly, with a small vehicle. We're headed in a different direction. I think the world we're in can accommodate companies having different strategies. On balance, we're all better off with companies pursuing different avenues because we're more likely to find good solutions that way. So if you look back on this five or 10 years from now, all of us will in some way have contributed to what becomes the direction we go.
What new technologies has Ford been able to use from its newly acquired brands?
We have a significant management position at Mazda, and we've discovered over the years a lot of things that Mazda does very well. The rotary, of course, has pluses and minuses. It is to Mazda as the flying wing is to Northrop. Today, we're doing a lot of cooperative work in catalysts and they're very good in some of these areas. They are also very lean and get things done with fewer people and at less expense. I think it would be fair to say that they were into lean manufacturing before we were. We've transplanted a lot of those ideas at the main line at Ford.
Jaguar was in the intensive care ward (when Ford bought it). What has happened since then? Jaguar has been very effective at implementing processes that we've worked on but had a harder time applying to a much bigger scale. We've discovered that Jaguar has been a good laboratory for how to actually make these things work.
Volvo is maybe the most interesting because Ford bought Volvo at a time when Volvo was a going concern: a healthy company with a good reputation and not in need of being acquired. Volvo has much to bring to the Ford party. There are places where Volvo is legitimately in the lead of Ford and will be doing things that we will migrate to other parts of Ford, but it will be done first at Volvo.
Re-educating Ford's technical work force has been a priority with you. Update us on how it's going.
You could think of individual and organizational capabilities as a three-legged stool. One of them is knowledge of the basics you learn in university. A second leg is having effective tools and processes. What I mean by that is CAD-CAM, CAE, product information management, network computer systems, and sophisticated diagnostic equipment. I liken the third leg to what in the medical profession are internships or residency and fellowships. It's the guided acquisition of application knowledge and the development of relevant experience. It's as important in our business as it is in medicine.
The problem is, most universities aren't teaching that third piece. So, it's necessary for the company to have an environment where people can grow and learn in a way that doesn't lead them to make big mistakes - in our business, very expensive mistakes.
We have another problem: a work force that spans many generations and many generations of technology. We can't be in the position of only having the new hires, the people who have only been here less than five years, using the modern tools while everybody else stands on the sidelines watching.
So we have this problem of educating a very diverse work force in technologies that are growing so fast it's unbelievable. This thing that Jac Nasser and Bill Ford announced (on Feb. 3) - we're trying to get a computer in everybody's house - part of that is to start encouraging people to become familiar with technologies that are very foreign to them. For somebody who's 50 or 55 years old, it's a big problem, so we have to get that whole spectrum of people to understand what these new technologies are and these new tools. We've got to do something. You can't just sort of exhort them to somehow learn how to do this stuff. You have to help them.
How do you know that you're being successful pushing technology?
We have a curriculum. We have an assessment of prior knowledge for some people who already know enough to simply get credit for the course. It's like testing out at a university. We also have proficiency tests we give before and after the courses, and we have minimum scores that are required in the post-course test in order for it to be credited.
In the past, you have struggled to get your people to enroll in courses. Is that still a problem?
It was, but when we tied promotions and compensation to it, we had the most amazing increase. So we're making a rapid comeback.
You may have heard that Ford is adopting Six Sigma (a quality program aimed at cutting costs by reducing variability and defects in products, services and processes). I think it'll work for Ford - the kind of common commitment on the part of the whole company from top to bottom to embrace these principles of design and development and good process control, understanding where you are.
To get everybody pulling on the same rope in the same direction may sound easy but in big companies it isn't. In fact, it's extremely difficult and the companies who are best at it are the ones that perform best. A big part of that is learning how to use our tools. We have expert practitioner-coaches, which in the parlance of Six Sigma are called black belts. Their concerns are to guide people who are learning to do something new. They're very successful at other companies and we expect it will be successful here.
Auto companies are increasingly going outside the auto industry to find new technology. Where is technology most likely found now?
Suppliers in the top tier frequently are in businesses other than the auto business, so they have their own migration of technology from aerospace or high tech information processing. We're also actively looking outside of the automobile industry. There are a lot more people here who would not have found their way into a company like Ford Motor Co. as recently as five years ago. We're discovering that the people who come in with a view of a different business bring different perspectives.
What can you say to the Ford consumer to justify all the time and expense that goes into Ford motorsports?
Maybe the single biggest benefit is the training of people. One could make a very good argument that the improving vehicle dynamics in Ford products really traces its origin to motorsports. We've been running engineers through the motorsport program for 12 or 13 years now, and a good many of these products that are being heralded as outstanding vehicles are being engineered by these people. I think it has redeemed itself unquestionably in that account.