Where Dreams Come True

Peter Horbury, Executive Director of Design, Ford of the Americas, promotes a team approach that embraces creativity and ingenuity
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Peter Horbury prefers to conduct all of his design meetings in a neighboring studio to better promote a team atmosphere. Photograph David Baditoi

Executive offices can be highly personalized reflections of individual tastes and careers. But Peter Horbury, executive director of design for Ford of the Americas in Dearborn since 2004, doesn’t let his office define him. A modest, soft-spoken Brit, Horbury began his career at Ford of Europe and was later design director of Volvo in Sweden before moving in 2002 to executive director of design of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, which at the time included Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo.

Yet for all his design skills, his office could be anyone’s. It’s roomy and nice, but ordinary. It enjoys a big-window view of the grass courtyard outside Ford’s Product Development Center along Oakwood Boulevard, which doubles as Ford of the Americas’ headquarters. It has a white board, a credenza along one wall, a conference table, a corner couch, a TV on a table, and a selection of wall hangings, models, and memorabilia.

More apt to roll up his sleeves than adjust his cuff links, Horbury shuns what can best be described as a top-down management style in favor of a collaborative team approach that promotes ingenuity and creativity.

PIT STOP: “This office is a pit stop. I’m grateful to have it because I can invite guests in where it’s quiet and comfortable, but it’s not what I need foremost as a workplace. I spend as little time here as I can. I love being in the studios, where we have as many discussions around the projects as possible. We have walk-arounds with the design directors and the head of project management unofficially three times a week. We’ll go to a studio, a list of subjects will be presented to us, the directors will pitch in, I’ll ask for advice, make a decision, and I’m off. I love being a designer, or design director, [and] not being holed up in an office.”

CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT: “When I went to Volvo, I could see nobody in the studio. The cubicles had grown to eight feet tall. One day, I shouted, ‘Is anybody here?’ The heads popped out around the corners of the cubicles. I said, ‘This is like working in a bloody bank. Can’t we get rid of this and see what we’re doing?’ Somebody said, ‘Well, it’s all right for you because you have your office.’ So I had it pulled down, and we opened up the entire studio.”

EARLY DAYS: “The showroom was so tall, clouds would form in it. I said, ‘Why is it so high?’ Someone said, ‘We used to design trucks here.’ I said, ‘What, on end?’ We took a third of that showroom height and put offices above, all open-plan. Nobody had an individual office. I sat in the middle at my desk, my assistant sat next to me at another desk, and the whole management team was in the same area. We had tables about this high, no chairs. [The] quickest way to end a meeting is to not let people sit down. We got through things so quickly, it was amazing.”

LEARNING CURVE: “The studios were opened up so all the designers could see each other and the work that was going on, and you have no idea the difference when people can see what … others are doing. Creativity breeds creativity. If one designer has an idea on his board or computer, another can see it and talk about it, and that will spark another idea — something beyond that — in his head. We had sofas in the middle of the floor, so people could gather and discuss things, and glass-fronted offices for privacy if we had suppliers in or needed a quieter meeting. The difference was amazing, fantastic. Creativity went through the roof.”

AT FORD: “We’ve moved one studio here into that mode. All their walls went down, the designers work together in each others’ quarters, and the difference is unbelievable. Even the naysayers — in Sweden and now here — have said, ‘I was really against this, but it’s so much better.’ We’re regaining a part of the building that looks out over a courtyard and [we’re] reorganizing the whole department into a much more open landscape over the next few months. That’s the critical difference between the office culture and what I see as a creative environment.”

VR STUDIO: ”With high-definition projection in our virtual-reality visualization centers, that’s where we spend most of those walk-arounds now — they’re actually sit-arounds. Yesterday, we were looking at the final models of the interior for a particular program, tweaking lines and surfaces. Because we have such a high-quality, high-definition 3-D image, we can move it around in real time, check every line and surface, and make notes — this needs changing, that needs changing. The electronic math-modelers will make those adjustments, then we’ll recheck it and sign it off.”

PROGRESS: “When I worked for Ford for a small part of my early career, we were doing the European Ford Sierra in 1978. We had so many choices, so many people, so much resources. They went through 15 different full-size models, all made by hand in clay, to get to the eventual Sierra … 15 became eight became four became one. Not only have we greatly reduced the number of models, we do a lot more of them digitally with computers and milling machines.”

PROCESS: “We take sketches, on paper or on screen, and translate them into a computer model. When we’ve got the 3-D digital model, our milling machines — we have the biggest milling machine in the world — make the full-size representation of that data. We’ll make some adjustments, then go back to the computer, redesign and re-machine. If we make adjustments by hand, we’ll scan it, then that data is translated into the computer model, adjusted, and refined. Then we’ll re-machine to confirm that we’ve done it right.”

REVOLUTION: “Going from sketch to computer model — instead of [to] clay model, right away, is where the time-saving is, and I don’t think anybody does it faster. I wouldn’t want to claim we’re miles ahead, but we get hints from our software and hardware suppliers that we’ve gone from followers to leaders, and I think we’ve grown to put our trust in this system more than some yet do. We used to machine hard models in epoxy, finish them in matte gray, and check every line and surface — exterior and interior. Now we do all exteriors onscreen. The resolution we have, the ability to magnify to infinitesimal detail, all these things we can now do onscreen that previously took very expensive models, are amazing. There’s going to be much more of that in the future. I think we’ll be able to make more and more choices onscreen.”

NO WASTE: “There’s no room in our competitive industry for waste. We can’t afford to do business the old way. Digital technology reduces development time from months to minutes, and gives customers the relevant products they want today — today.”

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