The Drive for Change: How Diversity Fuels Automotive Innovation

Monday 24 June 2024 15:57
Nissan's engineer Panthipa Thongkaow challenges the notion of a male-dominated automotive industry, leveraging diversity to build cars that are celebrated for their innovative, safety, and customer-centric design
The Drive for Change: How Diversity Fuels Automotive Innovation

Amidst the bustling floor of Nissan Motor Asia Pacific in Thailand, the air hums with quiet conversations and the rhythmic tapping of keyboards. The vast space blends open-plan workstations with traditional cubicles, housing hundreds of employees whose eyes are fixed on laptop screens as they navigate spreadsheets, compose documents, and dissect intricate 3D models. In a smaller meeting room, glimpsed through a mirror, a team huddles around a chart on a TV screen, their animated discussion echoing off the walls.

Nestled in a sunlit corner sits the Exterior Trim Engineering team from the Research and Development Division—a powerhouse of innovation at Nissan. Among them is Panthipa Thongkaow, affectionately known as "Bew." Despite her unassuming appearance in a Nissan-branded jacket and black navy slacks, Bew is highly effective, seamlessly juggling her roles. As both an engineer and a middle-level manager, she shares her journey of defying the perception of the automotive industry as traditionally male-dominated. Harnessing the power of diversity, she and her colleagues design and develop cars that effectively cater to the diverse needs and expectations of today's consumers

More Than Meets the Eyes

Bew, who entered the automotive industry over a decade ago, currently leads the Exterior Trim Engineering team, responsible for exterior parts design and development, such as the front grille, hood ornament, front and rear bumpers, and other exterior accessories. Car development is an intricate process, involving thousands of parts, each meticulously designed and tested.

For exterior trim engineers like Bew, their work extends far beyond mere aesthetics—it's a blend of form and function that goes beyond what meets the eye.

"Exterior parts design incorporates more than just aesthetics. Factors such as driving performance and compliance with standards and regulations in export countries are also crucial," Bew explains. "Safety is also another key consideration. When designing parts like a front bumper, we need to consider the bumper's impact resistance and collision dynamics as well as ensuring that parts are smooth and free of sharp edges that could potentially harm drivers," she continues.

The Art and Science of Car Design

Cars continually evolve to meet changing trends and consumer preferences, which is why Bew closely monitors automotive trends and consumer insights. During her travels, she keenly observes the vehicles on the road, noting styling preferences and choices in vehicle models.

"When I travel, I look at the cars people in different countries or regions drive, which colors or models are popular. Is it sporty, chrome, or black?," she says. "For example, in Thailand, styling preferences across segments are fairly consistent. Younger demographics often favor eco-friendly cars like the Almera, sometimes customizing their exteriors for a sportier or black appearance."

Such insights are instrumental in Bew's work, guiding her in developing and refining new car designs that more effectively meet consumer preferences. They have shaped the car models seen on roads today, reaching millions of Nissan customers, including Bew's masterpiece: the creation of the Nissan Navara Black Edition.

Traditionally, the concept development phases were led by headquarters in Japan. By the time it reached Thailand, it was already nearing the final stages of the development process, which primarily involved the physical production of a part and its implementation. However, as Nissan's footprint in Thailand expanded, Bew and her team took charge of developing the Black Edition concept. Witnessing her ideas come to life on the road was a proud moment, highlighting their passion and innovative contributions to Nissan's product lineup.

Accelerating Innovation Through Inclusion

Under Bew's leadership, the Exterior Trim Engineering team represents a mix of genders, nationalities, age, and experiences. This reflects Nissan's commitment to leveraging diversity for innovation. While working in such a diverse environment presents some challenges, Bew shares that once they are overcome, there is so much more to gain.

"With team members from diverse backgrounds, genders, and experiences, everyone brings unique perspectives. Sometimes, these differing viewpoints can lead to conflict, or unconscious biases may arise based on someone's background or belief," Bew says. "It's crucial to actively listen to their perspectives, ask questions, engage in conversations outside of work, and connect with them as individuals."

At Nissan, the culture of diversity and inclusion is reflected in the number of women holding leadership positions across ASEAN, with hundreds of managers and executives at Nissan ASEAN being female. This demonstrates the company's efforts to promote and build an inclusive workplace where everyone is empowered to thrive and where diversity is not just a buzzword. Nissan is also committed to further enhancing its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, striving for an even more inclusive environment where all employees can grow and be the best version of themselves.

We Can Do Anything

In the world of automotive engineering, similar to what Bew pointed out, the road to gender diversity has always been a work in progress. In traditionally male-dominated fields such as technology and automotive, achieving gender parity has been a challenging journey. This disparity is not limited to these industries alone. Across many ASEAN countries, women continue to be underrepresented in management roles, with a higher proportion of such positions held by men.

"I have seen notable changes in the engineering field since the start of my career over a decade ago. Previously, it was not uncommon for individuals to be passed over for promotions or development opportunities due to gender biases. Now, it's encouraging to see an increase in women occupying leadership roles within sectors that were once predominantly male," she says. "However, despite this headway, stereotypes and biases still persist. This is why it's imperative to continue promoting diversity and inclusion in our workplaces and to strive for greater representation of women in leadership positions."

When asked how to encourage more female representation in fields like technology and engineering, Bew's response is clear: "We need to ensure there are no entry barriers across industries. For instance, using gender-neutral language in job descriptions for roles often filled by men can broaden the search for qualified individuals."

As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, we turn the spotlight on individuals like Bew, whose journey inspires and paves the way for future generations of women engineers who dare to dream and dare to lead.

"Having worked in the engineering field, I feel there's nothing women can't do. Engineering knows no gender boundaries. Anyone, regardless of gender, can pursue a career in this field," Bew reflects.

Source: Edelman