Dave Leggett interviews Lotus Engineering’s Russell Curtis.
What are you busy with right now and can you describe your role?
My role is to coordinate the delivery from my direct reports in support of activities for our customers, and to formulate the capability development plans for the approval of the Lotus management team. Obviously our key objective is to deliver our current programmes to the satisfaction of our customers. This is a key part of my role. We are also constantly looking to develop new business opportunities, improve our own capabilities and improve our delivery methodologies. In addition, we are currently recruiting within the vehicle design group which should also bring in new ideas, capabilities and backgrounds so as ever this is an interesting period at Lotus.
How varied is the work? Can you give an indication of the types of design brief you get?
Very varied, we are currently supporting a full vehicle programme concept design study, a renewable energy programme with our Hybrid and Electric vehicles team and proposals with two separate OEM customers for full engine family programmes following the successful completion of concept study programmes delivered and coordinated from Hethel.
And what sort of companies commission Lotus in this area? (OEMs mainly, I presume?)
Yes, mostly large OEM customers from UK, Europe and Asia. In addition to these activities we provide support for Lotus Cars and Proton Cars. We also support smaller OEM companies and start-ups who are interested in our whole vehicle engineering experience.
Why would a third party engage Lotus for design engineering work (eg is it because Lotus offers skills/something they typically don’t have, or for capacity/cost reasons)?
Certainly cost is often a key consideration for customers, we operate in a very competitive arena. Having said that, Lotus does have key powertrain and chassis design capabilities which are of great interest to our customers with these skills not being readily available in the marketplace.
How is the design engineering activity organised and how long do jobs normally run for? Is calibrating the right level of resource to jobs a challenge?
We have two parallel design groups: Vehicle Design and Powertrain Design. The engineers in these groups specialise in their respective fields, but can also operate within the other group if required, so giving us a very flexible resource. Each area has technical lead engineers specialising in particular functions. These technical leads manage the design teams within the projects as well as liaising with the OEM engineering groups and the component suppliers. They also act as liaison with other functions such as CAE, development and manufacturing. In this way we have close control of our design teams and we also supplement these resources with temporary contract staff as demand dictates.
To what extent do your teams work closely with clients? Are teams working for long periods off site, with the clients?
A model which we have successfully run on recent projects is to locate a senior designer or technical lead engineer with the client for a few weeks at the start of the project to coordinate data acquisition and to develop relationship with the client’s team. This engineer then returns to Hethel as the programme develops, to coordinate the team at Hethel and to liaise with the client’s engineering groups. In this way we ensure close relationships with our client’s engineering groups from an early stage.
How many engineers are there and are they all based at Hethel?
We have a relatively small team of 20 engineers within the design engineering group at present, which we supplement with contract resources as required. We can also call on our facility in Michigan, USA for additional support if needed.
Do you find there are issues with obtaining/recruiting for particular skill sets?
Certainly Powertrain and Chassis design skills are in great demand within the industry at this time so it does prove challenging to attract these skills. We are lucky at Lotus however, as engineers we talk to often recognise the variety of programmes that they will be asked to support at Lotus and so are interested to discuss potential roles. Even so we are currently finding that we have to recruit from outside the UK for some of these skills.
How do you market your capabilities to the industry?
Mostly our customers are very aware of our outstanding history of automotive design engineering over the years. What we do need to ensure is that our customers understand how we are developing our offerings around current technologies, such as hybrid and electric vehicles for example. We find that a regular presence at technical conferences and automotive shows around the world, goes a long way to reminding customers of our capabilities. Our customer base remains UK and Asia biased and we would love to develop a technical delivery capability in Europe as the demand increases.
How do you maintain client confidentiality and reassure clients about that?
All of our programmes are stored within separate vaults on the IT filer to ensure that no client data is at risk. Also, only those engineers signed-off to the project are given access to a project folder. Similarly, all the engineering programmes are operated from separate swipe-card controlled offices. Again, only personnel approved to work on the project will be given swipe-access to these offices. As engineers move between projects, they are allocated logins and swipe-card access to the new project.
To what extent does your team feed into Lotus Cars work?
We have always been an engineering provider to Lotus Cars programmes and have several engineers currently supporting design roles in Lotus Cars projects. We have also taken on bespoke work packages where Lotus Cars has capacity or skills shortages. This can be seen as an advantage for our customers in as much as our engineers are directly involved with our own Lotus Cars products, which is valuable experience that they can bring to our customer programmes.
What gives you satisfaction in your job?
As a design group, our primary role is to deliver the design programme on time, within cost and to the specification required by the customer. When we achieve this and receive a message of thanks from a happy customer, this is extremely satisfying. It is also exciting when you see the first components coming in for the start of the powertrain or vehicle build and test phases. This is where you see the designs that you have developed in the virtual CAD and CAE environment take physical shape in a working powertrain or vehicle. It is great to see the teams gather for a first engine or first vehicle run.