Exclusive Interview with Alan Banks, UK Innovations Manager at Ford

1. What’s your role and responsibility with your current organisation and how does it fit in with the wider industry?

My current role is within the UK Innovations Team with a remit for looking affordable weight reductions for our Commercial Vehicles. Commercial Vehicles are the lifeblood of our industry and in an electrified world, the weight that these propulsion systems add has far reaching effects to us all. With driving license restriction of 3.5T, this affects CO2 generation (for ICE and hybrid vehicles) as well as range and performance for BEV vehicles. But more than that, it affects payload. We develop our business around the payload efficiency of our vehicles and our customers demand this efficiency. Every kg the vehicle weighs detracts from payload so we work very hard to ensure that we maximise this.

We recently took a bold step to take 750kg out of the full specification UK ambulance with our development partners at Venari Group in the North of England. This is called Project SIREN and really showed the passion that the Ford team have for the product and what can be done – in a very short space of time.

The mantra we have in the team is ‘The Right Material in the Right Place’. You’ll hear me use that phrase a lot in my presentations. Its important because we need to ensure that our vehicles remain affordable and to ensure we are meeting all of our customers needs. So we need to address total cost of ownership and balance that with customer expectations in a rapidly changing business and social-economic environment. Sustainability and how we can make our vehicle better ‘citizens’ is also very high on our agenda.

2. Talk us through your career to date, what have been the stand-out moments for you?

I started working for as an apprentice at Ford at 16 straight from school. I was always a Ford guy even before I came aware of having to find a career and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve seen so many corporate, economic and social changes in that time that when I look back now its difficult to believe it’s the same company. But it’s the evolution and sometime revolution, that has kept the job interesting. My main career has been in Chassis Engineering. I firmly believe that the ‘soul’ of a vehicle is its chassis – not its engine. And being the suspension supervisor is something that I’ve truly loved in my time at Ford.

We have the best handling vehicles in the industry and our vehicle dynamics and chassis engineers are the best in the business and working with the team that developed the current Transit Chassis has been a privilege.

From a personal perspective, I’ve worked all over the world as part of my job and meeting the extended Ford family has been fantastic. I have friends all over the world – great friends – that I’ve never lost touch with that still inspire me to this day. I undertook my Bachelor’s degree and my Masters whilst still holding down the day job. They were challenging times, but I was so proud of the hard work and commitment that was afforded me by Ford and the Universities to make it happen.

3. You have worked at ford for thirty-seven years most recently taking a role that includes you running projects into mass production light-weighting opportunities in the automotive sector. To say you are passionate would be an understatement. What had kept you with ford for so long and what drove you towards working in the automotive sector?

For me, Ford is the stand-our automotive company of our time. When you think back to great cars, you instinctively think of the Mustang, GT40, Capri, the RS range….the list really does go on. Apart from the exotic brands, no-other company has this pedigree or passion. I think it was this that really inspired me to want to work for Ford and its never really occurred to me that I’d work anywhere else.

I’ve never been someone who considers going to work as a chore. I still get excited driving into the office in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, the job has had its moments that have been frustrating but by and large its been fantastic. The automotive sector is still an exciting place to work. We design cars – we engineer cars…..I think that’s really cool. I think when you have difficult times, its important to remember that. And the sector is evolving at an unprecedented rate now and these are exciting – if somewhat uncertain – times. 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have said that I’d see electrified cars in my lifetime….now, I’ll probably see fully autonomous cars in my ‘working’ lifetime. The pace of development is just incredible, and the game is changing immeasurably. At Ford we have the will and the passion to embrace change and we know how to win. That’s what keeps me coming back.

As you say I moved into running lightweighting project recently and away from day-to-day program delivery. This was borne out of a project we led in 2015 called CLASS that looked to understand what a single compression moulded carbon fibre rear suspension member would look like and what the challenges would be. This was an Innovate UK part-funded project and all of the technology and consortium partners were new to me. I was so out of my depth it was actually scary. But I enjoyed that project so much and it was hugely successful. We won the 2018 JEC Composites award for Automotive Innovation and in the composites world, this is the most prestigious award there is. That project spurred me on to develop new projects and new partnerships within UK industry and it has been a fabulous experience. In 2019, the opportunity arose to do this full time and although it was a wrench leaving my old team – that I’d built up individually since 2006 – it was the right decision for me.

Ford put a real emphasis on innovation and to be allowed the freedom to operate in the way that my team do is just fantastic.

4. You are presently a chairman of the Vehicular Composites group. Could you explain more about your role here?

The composites leadership forum (CLF) exists to influence the Government and other bodies to bring together support for composite materials and to grow the UK supply chain and academia. There are 3 elements to the CLF, the Automotive group, Aerospace and Construction. I took chairmanship of the Automotive group in 2020 and it became pretty clear to me that the expansion of composites from a lightweighting perspective is actually only part of the benefits of the material.

With new advanced propulsion systems coming on stream, particularly hydrogen, carbon fibre is a key element that the industry cannot live without. Carbon fibre in the auto industry has been the preserve of motorsport and niche vehicles up until now as the costs and process times don’t lend themselves to mass production. But hydrogen will change that rapidly as hydrogen storage on vehicles is done via filament wound carbon fibre tanks. This amount of carbon will start to bring the costs down as the manufacturing volume will really have to increase to meet the demand.

In an automotive world, hydrogen may be quite limited but in mass-transportation, freight, rail, defense and off-highway vehicles – where BEV isn’t really an option – its really the only solution.

I wanted the automotive group to be inclusive of these sectors as these will provide the biggest growth in composites in the coming years – hence changing the name from ‘Automotive’ to ‘Vehicular’ I felt was really important to engage and include more of the industry.

As well as the Vehicular Composites Group, I chair the Lightweighting Strategy Group for the UK Auto Council and am a Director of Composites UK, and these roles afford me access to some unbelievably motivated and strategic leadership that give me confidence that with the right policy, the UK composites industry – which is already the best in the world – can flourish.

5. What do you see in the future of the automotive industry?

That’s really difficult to predict as the technology is evolving at an unprecedented level. But I though connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) will be a huge step in the coming years. From when I started working for Ford, the height of sophistication was if you could afford electric front windows. When I compare that against the technology we have today its just mind blowing. Customer surprise and delight features soon become standard features and staying ahead of the game is the challenge.

Autonomy is a lot close than people think. Tesla ‘Autopilot’ is you could say is the closest thing we have to autonomy at the moment but I had a Focus ST Line a few years that had adaptive cruise control and adaptive steering and that technology worked perfectly and is pretty similar to the Tesla system. It really wouldn’t take much to enable full autonomy once the legislation is in place.

With autonomy of course comes other issues that need addressing that engineers have to think about and have solutions for. In a CAV, for instance, passengers don’t necessarily need to facing in the direction of travel….so where should airbags be placed….? If a CAV hits a large pothole, will it know that damage may have occurred to structural members of the underbody…..? The beauty of composite materials is that its possible to develop and deploy embedded sensors into the structures to tell the vehicle if it may experience a failure to ensure passenger and pedestrian safety. I this will become more important and with the rollout of even more exotic materials like graphene and carbon nano tubes, solutions will be found more quickly and become more robust. Whatever the future holds, it will be exciting and the engineers of tomorrow and going to have an exciting time.

6. Why are you involved in our show and what do you hope to get out of it?

I do a lot of presentations to Advanced Engineering and Material conferences because its important that the whole industry stays relevant. All manufacturers – and all industries actually – are facing the same challenges and its only through collaboration that timely solutions can be found. I’m very keen that Ford should take a leadership position on innovation and with the backing of a large OEM, the rest of the industry and supply chain can draw confidence in their work.

Ultimately, I want to get lightweighting technology to the fore and make them materials of choice, such that we don’t use the word ‘Advanced’. The technology is already here – it just needs the final push to make them reality.