Shawn Wright| Crain’s Detroit Business
Lightweighting. Hybrid technology. Electrification.
As the auto industry continues its focus on green mobility to meet a strict U.S. fuel efficiency standard of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025, the aforementioned innovations have become the norm.
“Things are still very busy in green mobility,” said Tony Tisler, electrified powertrain program manager of software and controls for Chrysler Group LLC and co-chair of the Michigan Academy for Green Mobility Alliance (MAGMA). “If you were at the (Detroit) auto show, you could see that most of the OEMs had multiple green mobility products displayed. We don’t have to speculate that it’s a hot area.”
One vehicle in particular to make headlines during the auto show was Ford Motor Co.’s 2015 F-150 truck. The company’s latest incarnation weighs 700 pounds less than its predecessors by using high-strength aluminum and steel. With the decreased weight going in a 2.7-liter direct-injected, turbocharged EcoBoost V-6, for example, Ford expects the truck will get nearly 30 miles per gallon.
“We’re looking at everything,” said MavaMarie Vandervennet, technical training manager for Ford and co-chair of MAGMA. “We’re looking for lightweighting, making sure our batteries are smaller, among other things.”
Although Ford was the one to make the big splash, the goal of making vehicles lighter is on all automakers’ minds.
“Lightweighting is a big part of General Motors’ philosophy, moving forward,” said Randall Champagne, hybrid engineering project manager at GM and co-chair of MAGMA. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be aluminum. … There’s a lot of changes in high-strength steel that I think you’ll be seeing more use, along with composites.”
Tisler, Vandervennet and Champagne might hail from three different competitors, but there’s one common thread that unifies them: MAGMA, a collaboration of automotive manufacturing employers and educational institutions.
“This is a relatively innovative process to have the Big Three, or any industry, work as closely with an organization like MAGMA, the universities and community colleges,” Vandervennet said. “Not only is it successful in producing engineers who are able to hit the ground running, but it also give us those who have an education that’s just right, just enough and just in time.”
Since its inception in 2009, MAGMA has used more than $4.3 million to support training in advanced energy storage, hybrid electric battery engineering and vehicle electrification. The MAGMA-endorsed courses have trained more than 800 automotive employees and unemployed individuals.
Future engineers will be expected to understand the whole hybrid and electrification systems, Champagne said. And individuals who specialize in electric motors, power electronics or other specialty engineers will continue to be in high demand. For example, Champagne said GM is continually looking for new engineers who have skills in advanced propulsion and hybrid technologies.
“Through MAGMA, we’ve been working with the colleges and universities to come up with curriculums and classes to bring that technology to the academia world,” Champagne said. “Therefore, when they come to General Motors, Ford, Chrysler or any of our suppliers, they at least have an understanding of what this technology is, the broad spectrums of hybridization or electrification of vehicles.”
Automotive manufacturers and their suppliers are in need of engineering and technical talent to support hybrid and electric vehicle design and manufacturing.
According to a 2012 survey of manufacturers by the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN), 73 percent of respondents were hiring engineers and 37 percent were hiring technicians. WIN recently assumed the role of convener and facilitator for MAGMA, taking over for Michigan’s Workforce Development Agency.
“As we move forward, there’s also going to be a continued need for service technicians who have the special skills in the electrification of vehicles,” Champagne said. “That’s going to be a growing area as these cars become online out there and become mainstream for the public. Service centers, dealerships are going to start looking for people with those skills.”
But those employers will not want to have to train them internally, he said. Instead, those technicians will be expected to have the skills ready to hit the ground running.
There are approximately 1,400 projected openings for mechanical, electrical, and electronics engineers and technicians annually, according to WIN. The existing workforce within automotive manufacturers and their suppliers also require updated skills to operate within the emerging electrified vehicle environment.
“The focus on repair technicians is going to be there for a long time,” Tisler said. “As we build more of these cars, you’re going to need more places that understand how to fix them. I think that’s going to be a steady need, going forward.
“In the engineering world, I still believe that people who are capable of virtual development, design and testing will be very important. (Or) people who can do any kind of physics-based modeling function for hybrids and understand already how an electric motor can be modeled. Those are things we have not tackled in MAGMA. I think that’s going to be important.”
The universities and community colleges are doing a better job at growing the curriculum to help meet the demands, all three agreed.
“In the past, (schools) just had their curriculums built and said, ‘This is what you get,'” Vandervennet said. “When the auto companies took a dive with the recession, we not only had to produce vehicles but we had to produce green mobility where there were huge gaps in engineers coming directly from the colleges.”
Ford, for example, would invite professors to sit alongside the company’s technical teams, such as its electrified power engineering organization, to create classes that would align with what was happening in the industry.
“We’ve never done that before, ever, as far as I can remember,” Vandervennet said.
That belief is held among the three MAGMA co-chairs, along with the idea that the future of innovation in automobiles will not be held in one single source.
“You will see expansions in all areas of electrification within our vehicles,” Champagne said. “You’re going to see increased fuel economy through internal combustion engines, lightweight materials and heavily used aerodynamics. You’re going to see changes in everything to be the winner of the game in increased fuel economy.”