Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog
To the heavyweight boxing great, Muhammed Ali, the prospect of being called a lightweight might sound like fighting words, but from a jobs-in-Southeast-Michigan perspective, the term floats like a butterfly overmy ears. Being the Motorcity has beenparticularly challenging recently. Yet the opportunity of lightweighting could help the region regain much of its global competitiveness—and tens of thousands of jobs—if pursued deliberately.
Lightweigting is the process of making manufacturing products lighter and stronger using new materials and technologies. The move towards this trend is driven by a number of factors, for example:
- Federal policy is facilitating a shift to greater fuel efficiency standards that will take effect in 2017. New fuel economy standards put into place for cars and trucks will raise average fuel economy to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles covered. Further, CAFE standards raise this to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
- Cost competition encourages R&D and new product/process integration, especially around the use of lighter (and more durable) vehicle materials.
- Growing market demand is being led by younger buyers who demand more efficient and technology-enabled vehicles.
- Technology advancements create new opportunities to innovate and compete.
While there are many elements that will contribute to achieving the vision of “green mobility,” lightweighting is expected to account for 72% of effort. The remaining 28% will come from areas like design improvement, engine and vehicle downsizing, vehicle electrification and hybridization, and aerodynamics.
Lightweighting presents an opportunity for the region to grow both R&D AND manufacturing jobs, both in automotive and non-automotive industries, including advanced energy and medical devices. The question is what it will take to get there.
Certainly, there are abundant lightweighting resources here in our backyard: U.S. military assets like TARDEC and TACOM look to related manufacturing processes and applications in their vehicle R&D. Lawrence Tech received a five-year, $11 million agreement with the U.S. Army to support testing that will help advance material design, testing, evaluation, and durability, and result in the deployment of new high-strength, lower-weight vehicle armor to protect troops and save lives.
Meanwhile, the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Oakland University and other higher education institutions teach, conduct research, and even explore commercialization of intellectual property around lightweighting opportunities relevant to the automotive and non-automotive industries, including advanced energy, medical devices and other areas. The region’s community colleges are in lock step, providing education, training and hands-on resources to companies tied to composites, joining, assembly, and even digital design, quality testing, prototyping and more.
Yet, other regions have been investing in assets that might help them develop green mobility manufacturing opportunities, including lightweight materials manufacturing, at a faster pace. Right next door, the National Research Council of Canada recently invested $45 million to support lightweight automotive materials. To the south, the Edison Welding Institute in Ohio is developing advanced joining technologies and processes, also essential for lightweighting.
In addition to further investing in our lightweight infrastructure, we also need to have strategies to address potential threats to our remaining manufacturing job base. Areas like lightweight, high-strength steel pose opportunities for our firms, but more traditional steel stamping, tool and die, and other areas could be left behind if they cannot make the transition to the new lightweight economy.
It is time for Southeast Michigan to brush itself off and take stock of where it stands with regards to green mobility, including lightweighting, and develop a strategy for the future. Business Leaders for Michigan, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the Center for Automotive Research are taking crucial steps in this direction, but there is a need to drill deep to understand the opportunities here in the region, including the urban core areas. Taking this crucial step, and investing in the outcomes, could save tens (even hundreds) of thousands of jobs and result many more new ones. The result could be a winning punch for our regional job creation strategy.