- Published in The Job.
Going into the office early is essential when you work with people in Japan. While you’ve been sleeping, your colleagues on the other side of the world have been working.
“I go in early and check what’s come in from Japan,” says Duncan McMath, Toyota Europe’s head of product planning. “We do a lot of TV meetings, they’re much better than a telephone conference. On the phone you can’t tell if they’ve understood. But obviously face-to-face discussions are always the best, so we’re in Japan every six weeks.”
Visiting Toyota’s headquarters gives McMath the opportunity to discuss developments with engineers and to steer the OEM’s R&D direction for vehicles bound for Europe.
“During my last trip to Japan,” he says, “I checked the sketches for the new Lexus IS luxury sedan. I looked at the clay model of the minor changes to the RX. We looked at a sports package for the new GS and we signed off the final design for the next Auris sedan, which will be built in Europe.”
McMath spends much of his time working on presentations, and trying to decipher what the latest trends will be. Toyota’s research department works with customers, running numerous clinics to track developments. This research helps with decisions on how vehicles should change.
These trends then have to be shown to the people at the very top of the OEM’s management structure, including Akio Toyoda, the carmaker’s president and CEO. “We build factories on the strength of these plans, so there’s a lot resting on them,” says McMath. “If we commit to building 100,000 cars, we’re supposed to sell 100,000.”
Motor shows give him an opportunity to see what direction competitors are moving in and to show technologies and vehicles first hand to executives like Toyoda. Paris was McMath’s most recent opportunity.
“I was running around lifting covers and checking everything,” he says. “We try to work out what the theme of the show is because on the morning it opens I have to tell Toyota VIPs what’s important.” It’s a stressful part of the job, but there’s always a more entertaining aspect around the corner.
“I do a lot of driving. The last time I was in Japan I spent the weekend at the test track driving the new Yaris which we’ll launch next year, looking at the chassis set-up,” he says with a broad smile on his face. “I probably spend about 20% of my time talking pure engineering, but it comes in waves.”
McMath admits that the DNA of a Toyota isn’t going to be the same as that of a BMW or a Ford. “For us, noise and riding comfort probably come above fantastic agility. It’s about creating a DNA that’s appropriate for your customers,” he says. For McMath and Toyota’s engineers to get the best ride out of the OEM’s cars he focuses on areas such as spring rates, shock absorber tuning and body rigidity.
Before the launch of a new car the initial focus is on target setting and benchmarking. Later McMath looks at the concept and the costing. He then moves into doing the grade strategy, deciding what features go on what level of car. The design then evolves until the last 18 months which consists of tuning, checking the design, checking quality and starting to do the chassis work.
“Then frankly 12 months before the launch we’ve finished and you hand everything over to manufacturing,” says McMath.
McMath’s job, like most involved in vehicle development, never stops. Every OEM is looking to make their vehicles as efficient as possible.
“Everybody’s improved CO2 emissions by three, four or five grams. So we’re going through how we can achieve a five-gram improvement by changing the tyre specifications, by using aerodynamic parts underneath, and by weight management,” he says.
With so many challenges to meet, both from changing legislation and the demands of the customer, McMath is likely to be spending a lot more time checking his emails from Toyota’s headquarters, picking out trends and flying to Japan for those all-important face-to-face meetings.
Education: Brighton University, BSc in mechanical engineering
1983-85: Gasket designer at R Klinger
1985-87: Engineer at Rover – overseas test programmes on Rover 800
1987-2000: Toyota GB – manager, then general manager, of technical and service
2000-04: Toyota Europe – general manager, technical and quality
2004-present: Toyota Europe – general manager of product planning