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Ford design director draws on her female perspective

Published January 11, 2013

Once a car design is sketched, it’s just the beginning of its journey to the showroom floor. It then faces a long process of development, modelling and engineering.

At Ford, that all happens under the watchful eye of Desi Ujkashevic. As director of global design technical operations, as well as European body engineer director, she’s responsible for such things as design quality, models, tooling, plant support, and even show-car development.

Although not a designer herself, she plays a key role in heading up teams that reproduce the designs in both computers and clay, and fabricate components in metal and wood to bring the design to life.

“We look after getting the sketch to the models, and making sure that these parts can be made and then sent to an assembly line,” says Ujkashevic, who is currently based in Cologne. “I have the group here in Germany, and in England, Australia, Brazil and in North America. I’m the senior leader of about 1,500 people.”

Born in Montenegro, she spent most of her life in Michigan, starting at Ford 21 years ago as a trainee. She was primarily assigned to the proving grounds to work on body structure and durability, as well as product planning and vehicle architecture.

It may seem like an unusual place for a woman to start her career, but cars are in Ujkashevic’ s blood. “I worked with my dad on our first car,” she says. “It was a 1983 Camaro, and I was 15 when my dad bought it. We redid the entire vehicle, body and all. I wanted a car and he bought it for me, but it was a used car that needed work, and we agreed to do it together. It took us a full year to rebuild it.

“He put aside some money for me to get a special paint job, and I got this burnt red colour. I drove it for a couple of years, but I was frugal, and I sold it when I went to college.”

Although Ujkashevic must take a designer’s sketch from concept to reality, it involves far more than simply making an exact copy.

“We work pretty collaboratively (with the designers), but it doesn’t go from a sketch and then we push the button and stamp them out,” she says.

“Our team is the bridge, and if there’s a better way to execute something, especially in mass modelling where we do the stamping, the design team is pretty receptive. If they’re working on a character line, we’ll say that when we stamp this, we won’t have the crispness.”

On the Ford C-Max, for example, Ujkashevic had to work with both sides to redesign a body line that wouldn’t have come out properly when the metal panel was stamped.

Ujkashevic is often the only woman in the room, especially among senior-level executives, but she doesn’t see that as a difficulty.

“Montenegro was a small country with a workforce that was very male-dominated, and that never stopped my ambition,” she says. “I really looked for opportunity. But I also believe that women bring something to this. We represent a huge influence in purchasing decisions, and it’s a huge benefit to any automotive manufacturer to understand the perspective of a woman, whether it’s practicality, or flexible storage, or the pure emotion of the piece.

“I always remind people that you can buy things on a practical basis, but everybody buys emotionally as well. I’m a strong advocate of understanding consumer demands, and women will make it better by influencing the product to get to a better place.”

Coordinating all of her global teams can be a challenge, and, although many sessions are done through interactive video conferencing, she regularly spends time in each region. Her daily activities “depend on the day,” she says. She must divide her time between looking at future products — she works about five years ahead — and on taking designs that have gone through the process to their final stages.

That becomes even more difficult as the company focuses on vehicles that will be sold in several markets.

“Take the C-Max and Mondeo,” Ujkashevic says. “They are built to be globally compliant, but we won’t necessarily put in the same content in each region. In each market, we deal with suppliers and they all have different challenges. And we’re not all on one clock.

“I have an incredible team, and they execute the design philosophy and bring forward the essence of the design, with the right content and cost. We need to give the customer more than is expected, and that’s what makes my job incredible and enjoyable.”

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