Driving Change Through Electrification Innovation

Sept. 14, 2021
The chief nameplate engineer discusses her role in Ford’s electrification project.

Linda Zhang, chief nameplate engineer behind Ford’s all-electric F-150 Lightning, has a 25-year career with the automaker. Ahead of the all-electric pickup’s launch in 2022, Zhang spoke with Machine Design about her role in leading the planning and electrification effort of the iconic truck.

Zhang shared why she is excited about her team’s accomplishments, offering her view on the future of electrification. The F-150 electrification project is not only an inflection point for her employer, she said, but also a tipping point for EV adoption for the industry.

Video Transcript

Begg: Hello, everyone. My name is Rehana Begg, and I'm a senior editor with Machine Design and Hydraulics & Pneumatics. Our exploration of how manufacturers use their resources to promote systemic change and decrease the bearings that lead to the attrition of women engineers continues. Today, we're joined by Linda Zhang, the chief nameplate engineer behind Ford's all-electric F-150 Lightning. Ford's electrification project is a milestone in Zhang's career, for sure, but her 25-year career at Ford and background as an electrical engineer has allowed her to work in various product lines and to strategize on what goes on under the hood. It's my great pleasure to welcome Linda. So, Linda, I'd love you just to start just by giving us a brief overview of what you do in your work.

Zhang: Yeah, sure. So thanks for the great introduction. I lead the development for the all-electric F-150 Lightning. So this is our all-new electric pickup truck and with F-150, we're really electrifying our most iconic brands, starting with that strength in position and that customer know-how with the 44 years of sales leadership in F-Series and we're leveraging that knowledge base really to provide our customers with an awesome truck that's not only durable, capable and productive that they would expect from any of our F-Series products, but also elevating that with the capability that electrification can bring, right? And some of these capabilities are capabilities that only electrification can bring.

For example, we leverage the battery to provide electrical power output for our customers, whether it's on the go with our Pro Power Onboard so that they can plug things in one plug at a time, or whether it's at home allowing that truck to serve as a backup generator for the home for that entire home ecosystem in case of any power outages. There's many other capabilities that really electrification can bring, and that's what we're doing in it at Ford here with the F-150 Lightning.

Begg: And that sounds very exciting. But just to be transparent, my husband drives an F-150, so.

Zhang: Okay, great.

Begg: So I wanted to ask you, your you your title chief nameplate engineer, what exactly does that mean? And tell me specific about what you do.

Zhang: Yeah, sure. So as a chief engineer, I have responsibility for the overall planning and execution of the F-150 Lightning product for the entire nameplate. So my role is really to starts with understanding what the customer wants and providing that particularly try and understand and not only just meet their expectations, but to exceed their expectations, those needs, those wants.

And for the F-150 product, that means giving them that durability and reliability that they would expect, because we know that our customers use this product in many cases to do their work to make sure that they get things done around the home, whether it's for work or for home. And then in some cases, just to be able to to use the truck for transportation, too. So we make sure that we meet those needs with the towing and hauling, and then we add even more benefits that we can provide with electrification.

So my role is really to lead that effort. And I work with all of the team members, whether it's the engineers that engineer the parts, the designers that make the beautiful products, our marketing team that that goes out and ensures that we get the right customer input as well as set the product up for successful pricing perspective our really great purchasing buyers that are out there making sure that we get the best cost for the company and the product. Our manufacturing team members that are out there making sure that we build the product in a very quality way and that it's easily, easily set up for manufacturing and you know, so many other team members. But my role is really to bring everyone together so that we can work as a team to not only build a great product, but also to make sure that it's it's easy to service and everything else, so.

Begg: So, I mean, this is a this is a very exciting project. And electrification, it must be, I imagine it's also fairly new to the culture and the direction that you're taking at Ford. Tell me about some of the memorable moments in the project.

Zhang: Oh, sure. My favorite what most memorable moments are really whenever we can share the product with anyone. And for us, it was really even just early on prototypes and being able to share that with the team and the extended team that's been working on it. So giving the team the opportunity to really see, touch and experience the product has always been super, super rewarding and memorable for me personally. And it's always fun because whenever anybody gets in the product and we know the numbers, right, as engineers and designers, as folks that kind of plan out the product, we know how the numbers shake up.

But to be able to actually get in the vehicle and experience it and particularly that like instant acceleration that we have at the beginning, it almost always puts a, well, no, it definitely puts a huge smile on everyone's faces and the majority of the time we even get, you know, some major level giggling and and just pure happiness when they experience that acceleration. So I think for me, like really the the ability to share the prototypes with the team members was it was definitely the most memorable and probably the most fun.

Begg: Yeah. So were any key turning points in this project, at what point did you decide, OK, we're onto something different here? Tell me about something that perhaps really surprised you.

Zhang: Yeah, sure. I can definitely do that. When we first started the project, you know, we knew that we had a lot of room for innovation here, right? This, in a way, is a new space. It's an electric pickup truck, which is really never been done before. So with that was a lot of excitement, but there was also a lot of skepticism around the truck and it being capable.

Electric, historically, doesn't get equated to capable and tough and all those things that a lot of people would expect with a truck. So naturally, one of the key turning points for us was really our ability to demonstrate that capability.

So I I'm not sure if you had seen this before, but about a couple of years ago, in 2019, we actually did a demonstration where one of our prototypes, and this was a very early-on prototype when we're still scaling the size of everything. We leveraged that to tow freight trains that weighed over 1,000,000 pounds and that ended up on YouTube. So I think that was definitely a turning point for a lot of people. Even within the company, just to see how capable this electric truck can be with not only the basic accelerations, but also tough things like towing and hauling. So that was definitely a surprise for a, I don't think it was a pure surprise per se, but that was definitely a turning point. I think the surprise for us was really, and probably a lot of our customers, is really all the great features that we could jam into this vehicle, right?

And really leveraging the capability of this electric truck with the battery and everything else to be able to deliver a content like that intelligent backup power that I mentioned earlier for backup as a backup generator or even something really cool like that make a power frunk in the front of the vehicle, which is basically a front trunk. That was something that was a super surprise for a lot of our customers. And it was not just a surprise, but a major delight because it fixed a huge pain point for truck customers. And that was one of the things that we were trying to fix. But just the amount, the ability or the the degree that we were able to get it with such a spacious mega power frunk, 400 liters. And not only that, but very capable with 400 pounds of payload right up front there. So I think those are kind of the turning points and also surprises.

Begg: Yeah. I mean, the term frunk I had to give me a second. 'Well, what exactly is that?' Certainly very interesting and a nice surprise. Pleasant surprise. But take me a little bit deeper into the battery power, explain a little bit more about how you were able to to to harness the power of electric for this for this vehicle, for the F-150 in particular, that you really need it to be a workhorse. So what was some of the tensions and the challenges there?

Zhang: So we didn't have too many tensions there or challenges. I mean, with any innovation, we do have challenges, right? Of course. And, but I think for this one, it made a lot of natural sense once we actually started thinking through what it took to get there, right? We have this giant battery in the vehicle that that can be used for propulsion, obviously, in the vehicle operation.

But in addition to that, it was also there, and what we were trying to do with it is when the vehicle's stationary and when it's not being used for for the propulsion and the drive and supporting kind of the operations of the vehicle, it's just sitting there. So could we do something with that and maybe provide our customers with some added benefit? And that was the other thing that we really focused on is just making sure that we gave our customers more and more and more and more right? It's an end and that's that's where this truck is great because we've tried to make sure it is an end solution and it and we've basically done the power system so that it's in a way bi-directional.

You can charge, you can obviously put power into the battery, but then you can also extract it. And the way we extract it is that we extract it and allow it to go through a wallbox in the home inverter so that it can power up an entire home. So that's the hardware and the software side of the world kind of meeting together there, which is really nice.

Begg: Right, can you reflect on any any part of that, something that didn't work? Did the work fail in any way? And what might you have done to prevent those areas of partial failure?

Zhang: Yeah, sure. I mean, when we first initially started work on the product in terms of sizing, the batteries and the motors and the cooling system, we did experience some failures there, particularly with tough work, like going uphill for, you know, long times. So, you know, those that is just an example.

But really it's not like, in my view, with with this type of of a project because it is so innovative and in a white space, we had that freedom to really innovate and really try different things. And whenever we whenever you attempt innovation, you're always going to get some level of failure. But that failure also helps us learn, right? And that level of that level, with that level of innovation, you really can't be afraid to fail because that failure helps us with the learning. And it's not really the failure that matters. Instead, it's really how we react to it that matters the most. So for us, you know, this team is just wonderful because every time we had any type of failure, they just rolled up their sleeves and worked even harder.

We never gave up and we always found a way to kind of get to where we eventually needed to to solve the problem. And it's funny because on the truck team we actually have the saying around the truck being 'Built Ford Tough,' but that doesn't just go for our product. In a way, it goes for our team as well, right? The team has that culture of we're resilient and that we're Built Ford Tough as well. But I think the interesting part is similarly, we also don't let that success get to our head.

What I mentioned earlier that we've had 44 years of sales leadership, but we're not resting on our laurels at all, right? We're instead constantly looking at opportunities to improve and the truck being an EV truck, an electric truck truck is really a great example of that, where really we're not resting on the fact that we've got this gas product out there. Instead, we're trying to make it even better with electric and really helping that migration from ice to bev.

Begg: Right. You know, when you speak, you light up and the work seems very rewarding to you. What was most rewarding?

Zhang: Oh, well, definitely just the ability to share this product with anybody. It's just so exciting. And I mentioned the skepticism earlier, early on kind of in the program. So a lot of it is just knowing the engineering behind it and really kind of working through all of those challenges, like you mentioned, to deliver this awesome truck for our customers. And what we it's just super rewarding to see anyone experience it and see it for the first time because it looks cool. It, it, it drives really well. The performance, the capability, the appearance, the functionality, whatever it might be with our, even with our smart features, that to me is the most rewarding. Being able to share it with everyone and getting that super positive feedback from folks that, you know, that signals to us that this is going to be a great truck that people love.

Begg: Oh, for sure. Now let's talk about you specifically. Do you do you view your contributions as successful? And in what way do you think your accomplishments throughout this project reflect on your success?

Zhang: So yeah, I mean, definitely, I think this project overall has been very successful. We've been able to bring to market this new concept with an electric pickup truck. And together with the team, we've planned and engineered this awesome truck. And, you know, we know our customers are going to love it. Just from the recent launch and the feedback that we've gotten. So from that piece of it, you know, I'm really proud of the team and I'm also really proud that I'm able to participate in part of that and really lead a lot of the development here to ensure that we got to this truck, prioritizing with the team, making sure that we work through challenges and really pushing, pushing through a lot of that to ensure that we got the truck that we needed for our customer.

Begg: Linda, what's next for you certainly within this project as well as from a from a career standpoint, where does this take you now?

Zhang: Well, you know, my job here isn't done yet. We're still in the final stages of testing and verification for the vehicle. And we also have a really important manufacturing launch phase coming up with the truck to get the units actually out to our customer. So my plan is really just staying with this truck throughout this next big phase and definitely making sure that we get the product into our customers' hands. It's a great product and we know that our customers are going to love it once they experience it, and we want to make sure that it's a great product that they can weave into their daily lives because I know with my truck, it's in my daily lives and I, I, I want to make sure that we do that with electric truck as well.

Begg: Alright, so what's the one thing few people know about you, Linda?

Zhang: People are starting to know more and more about me lately. But I think one I guess one of them for the longest time was that I graduated college when I was 19. And for for a long time, I actually kept that really quiet because I was always worried that people were going to think that I was too young or too immature or whatever it might be. And now that I'm older, I'm really, really realizing that that's just a bit silly, you know, and it's not really something I should be worried about. But still, I think that's something that I'm not a lot of people know and I don't generally broadcast it, but yeah.

Begg: That is so commendable. Congratulations.

Zhang: Thanks!

Begg: So what would you say then, for you, are the barriers to success in your career?

Zhang: So I wouldn't say I had, you know, too many barriers per se, but I guess an interesting challenge for me, and I think this is always, you know, a challenge early for anyone, is really finding that right balance between work and family and life.

For me, you know, it was a very personal just decision. And I know that's probably the case for many. And it changed depending on the stage of life that I was in. So, you know, fortunately, I've always had a really great support network both at home and at work with really great folks kind of that that support me between, you know, my husband, my extended family with parents around, my brother who's around and even just friends and then at work having really great coworkers that support the fact that I do have a family and help me, you know, basically balance that

I think that is something that was what was something that I kind of initially viewed as a challenge as to how to make that balance. And over time, I've been able to kind of work through that and say, hey, this can happen, we can do both and have the best of both worlds. So yeah, but I think it's a very, very personal, you know, case where for everybody it might be a little bit different.

Begg: Oh, for sure. So I also read that your second, you're a second generation Ford employee. So I believe your your father worked at Ford before you. Is is that correct?

Zhang: Yeah, he did. He he worked in last division initially and then he when he worked, by the time he retired, he was in research because he has a Ph.D. So yeah.

Begg: Oh, very good. So I have to ask you, though, have doors opened because you're a woman?

Zhang: Honestly, I don't really think of myself like any differently because I'm a woman. I kind of view myself as just an engineer. And for the most case, my my gender hasn't made or been a major impact in my role today, right? My focus normally is really just making sure I get the job done to the best of my abilities and to help deliver that great product for our team.  

In my current in my current role, part of what I also trying to do is just make sure that we have diversity in, in, in points of views and mindset and ways of even thinking, rather than kind of the visible areas of gender and such. So I think that for the most part, I tend to operate more just as an engineer in doing the best I can to make sure that we deliver a great product for our customers, regardless of my gender necessarily.

Begg: Yeah, so when you think of the future of the kind of work that you've talked about, what gives you a sense of hope? And also, on the flipside of that, what makes you concerned or worried?

Zhang: So I'm really excited about the future of electrification. That's part of the reason I'm in this project is just to make sure that we get a truck out there that that in a way is a game changer. And it's this product, this truck, the F-150, Lightning is not only just an inflection point for the company, but I think it's going to be a really nice tipping point for the adoption for the industry as well. So so really I think I'm really excited about that.

I think, you know, with concerns and worries, I think most of them we'll overcome. But, you know, one of the things that will be a challenge for EV adoption initially will will be all the infrastructure and such, whether it's home charging or public charging, we've done a lot of really great work to try to mitigate that with the home chargers that come with the product as well as, you know, making sure that we have access to the largest network in North America with 63, over 63,000 plugs and such. But it is still one of the things that I know that our customers are concerned about. So that would be one thing that I think would concern me a bit in terms of just making sure that the the the the industry as a whole comes with us in that infrastructure set up so that EVs can be successful.

Begg: But we'll certainly be watching. I one last question. What do you drive?

Zhang: Oh, the best thing about working at Ford. Well, one of the best things is that you get to drive the awesome products. So for at home here we have three drivers. So we have three, three vehicles. We obviously have the F-150. It's a gas right now, but I will be getting the EV once we get that out next year. And then we also have a Mach-E, which is our electric Mustang, and then we have an Expedition for when we need to, you know, move a lot of things around and people around. So yeah, those are our three vehicles. Predominantly I drive the F-150 and the Mach-E, depending on the day. I used to drive the Mach-E, well, the Mach-E I ordered for me, but my daughter has taken it, taken it from me and put her high school sticker on it. So there goes that vehicle.

Begg: I know I can certainly relate to that. So Linda, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much. Linda Zhang is the chief nameplate engineer at Ford Motor Company in Michigan. Thanks for joining us today and we'll see you next time.

Editor’s Note: Machine Design's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hub compiles our coverage of gender representation issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines.

About the Author

Rehana Begg | Editor-in-Chief, Machine Design

As Machine Design’s content lead, Rehana Begg is tasked with elevating the voice of the design and multi-disciplinary engineer in the face of digital transformation and engineering innovation. Begg has more than 24 years of editorial experience and has spent the past decade in the trenches of industrial manufacturing, focusing on new technologies, manufacturing innovation and business. Her B2B career has taken her from corporate boardrooms to plant floors and underground mining stopes, covering everything from automation & IIoT, robotics, mechanical design and additive manufacturing to plant operations, maintenance, reliability and continuous improvement. Begg holds an MBA, a Master of Journalism degree, and a BA (Hons.) in Political Science. She is committed to lifelong learning and feeds her passion for innovation in publishing, transparent science and clear communication by attending relevant conferences and seminars/workshops. 

Follow Rehana Begg via the following social media handles:

X: @rehanabegg

LinkedIn: @rehanabegg and @MachineDesign

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