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Dr. Ken Washington is Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford Motor Co. Appointed in August 2014, he leads Ford’s worldwide research organization, overseeing the development and implementation of the company’s technology strategy and plans.

Leading Ford’s drive for innovation

Filling the void left by 32-year Ford veteran Paul Mascarenas, Dr. Ken Washington (SAE member, 2014), former Vice President of the Space Technology Advanced Research and Development Laboratories at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., in August assumed the role of Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering at the Ford Motor Co. Charged with overseeing the development and execution of the company’s technology strategy and plans, Washington will pull from research and advanced engineering experience gained over the course of his 28-year career at Lockheed Martin and Sandia National Laboratories in the areas of nuclear engineering, information systems, super-computing, information privacy, and R&D space technologies. Two months into his post, Washington spoke with Automotive Engineering Assistant Editor Matthew Monaghan about his thoughts on technology transfer, innovation, and STEM outreach.

Coming from the aerospace and defense field, what was it about this position at Ford that made it appealing enough for you to make the switch?

I had been in aerospace and defense my whole career, so it was quite a surprise when I had the opportunity put in front of me. I quickly began doing a lot of research about the company, its history, the transformation that it went through, and its strategic focus, vision, and products, and the more I read the more excited I got. My experience over the last two months here have validated everything that I’ve read. It’s a great company, and we make great products. We’ve got a solid plan that everybody understands and is working toward. How could you not like working for a company that has all that going for it? It’s just been a really wonderful transition for me.

What has surprised you most thus far about the shift from space to automotive?

The most pleasant surprise has been the degree to which innovation is really baked into the culture of the company. It’s been in the DNA of Ford for a long time, and that’s evident in how the leadership talks to each other, how we talk to people, and what we care about. [President and CEO] Mark Fields has been very explicit in talking about his focus, which is to have continuity of the One Ford plan and to accelerate that plan. The surprise for me is he follows that pretty quickly with the focus on innovation in everything we do, and it’s a real pleasant surprise to have that laser-like focus on innovation. The challenge for me and my team then is to take that focus and fulfill the vision with real projects that are exciting, that matter, and make it into our vehicles and that create the building blocks for the future of our products.

You've talked before about excitement as a motivator for innovation. How do you foster that excitement to help spur innovation at Ford?

I’ve been doing R&D my whole career, and as I’ve been doing R&D work there’s been one constant theme that has been universal in all the roles that I’ve had, which is the number one motivator for great work is doing work that matters. That is having meaningful assignments that are technically challenging, that bring to bear your skills, and that enable you to really sink your teeth into a hard problem. That’s what turns on people who have chosen the career of doing technology development research.

Do you see the opportunities for technology transfer increasing between the sectors of aerospace and automotive?

In some sense, the answer is yes, but it’s not as direct as you might think. The industries are very different; the cycle times are very different; the cost points are drastically different; and the volumes are incredibly different. The space business that I came from at most a half dozen or so products get finished a year and get put into service. It doesn’t really translate in terms of cost point and volume. What does translate are the principles for how you do innovation and how you do research. One of those principles is you need to do things that on one hand have a direct line of sight to the product that you’re delivering. We’ve got things in our portfolio that are aligned with things that we know are going to go into a product. They’re put into our vehicle cycle plan. We’ve got a vehicle program director that’s counting on it being ready at a certain time, and we work on that technology until it’s ready and then we transition it into our system.

On the other hand, we’ve got things that are being developed that are longer term; they’re exploratory. They’re the building blocks, and we partner with universities and strategic partners in the supply chain to help us pull from all the different corners around what’s possible. We’ve got a very rich portfolio of things like that at Ford that we’re fostering and moving forward. Some of those will make it into a vehicle and some of them won’t. Those two dimensions of the portfolio are very parallel to the aerospace and defense industries. If you look at the things that are in that exploratory research category, many of those things have carryover and similarity. Like advanced materials research that is a little farther out. Like LIDAR development to develop next-generation sensing technologies that one day will make it into autonomous vehicles. There are clearly LIDAR technology development programs in the aerospace and defense community.

Between autonomous technologies, alternative powertrains, lightweight materials, and in-car entertainment how do you focus your resources?

The focus comes from having a clear understanding of where the company is going. The Ford plan is unchanged from when it was put into place some time ago. Mark’s focus is to accelerate that plan. So how I translate into our priorities are the technologies that are aligned with that plan and where you can see the line of sight between the technology work that we’re doing and the priorities for building high-quality, safe, green, smart cars, those are the projects that get the primary focus and attention.

The priorities that I’ve given myself coming into the role, as I’ve reviewed the whole portfolio have been to really focus on some of the smart things that we’re doing in terms of connected cars and mobility and in the areas of green, we’re doing some work developing future powertrain solutions in the fuel cells. That has been an area where I really needed to put some focus and attention because it’s going to be part of our future solution. There’s been a lot of attention in driver-assist technologies. Behind the scenes, we’ve been doing research in taking that to the next level in terms of developing technologies that will enable a car to provide an autonomous vehicle experience. We’re not ready to announce anything at this point, but we clearly have a very active research portfolio going on in that area.

With your time at Sandia National Laboratories, will that experience be able to be applied at Ford in the areas of cybersecurity and energy?

I think it definitely will. As we continue to put our focus on bringing new experiences to our customers in the vehicle, the connected car is going to be a big deal. The research and advanced engineering team is working closely with our connectivity team; in fact, it’s hard to tell where the boundaries of those two teams are sometimes. We’re closely collaborating to bring future connectivity solutions for our customers, both in-vehicle and otherwise. If you think about what’s happening in the mobility ecosystem, we’re really at an inflection point for what consumers expect when it comes to the experience they have when they step into a vehicle. I’m bringing some of my experiences of how to leverage those technologies in a way that will help meet those expectations while also being proactive in terms of anticipating any challenges associated with data privacy and cybersecurity.

You have a passion for STEM education, and one of ways you mentioned about helping to address the issue is getting staff "engaged." What are the benefits of that engagement and how do you proactively get your staff to take part?

When it comes to innovating in any space, it comes down to having the right talent on the team. The men and women that make up our workforce all understand that. It’s very easy for me to be an advocate and executive champion for STEM because I think the entire workforce understands that it’s just good business. As we look to hire new talent to bolster and continue to advance our team, having the right advocacy about STEM education simply enhances our pipeline of employees. It connects us with the right universities; it gets our message out to the community in a way that puts the Ford name in front of people who want to go into STEM careers. I’m looking forward to engaging on the STEM front and being a spokesperson for the company in that space.

Is there a particular direction that you steer young people who have shown an interest in an engineering career?

In my experience, when you do something you love, you do it well. Young people that are interested in STEM or like math and science, sometimes they don’t know what will excite them. When I work with young people and when I’m out doing advocacy for STEM, what I’m really focused on is showing them what’s possible, talking about the realm of the possibility. When you’re in high school or college, you haven’t had the life experiences to know what it’s like to be a practicing engineer or research scientist. I spend my time and energy just telling stories and sharing with them what it’s like to work at a company like Ford Motor Co., where every day you get to talk to other scientists or engineers and get to actually work on complex problems and build things that do exciting things. What that leads to is it sparks an interest.

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