You may not always be happy with our point of view, and you may think we spend too much time interviewing chief executives and vice presidents without paying attention to the folks in the trenches, those who do the grunt work that drives the auto industry.
But we do talk to real people - when we manage to negotiate a security pass for the shop floor. We generally jump at such opportunities because they don't come along very often.
Our engineering survey, now in its 21st year, illustrates this conviction. It lets us do an end-run around image-conscious executives who like to talk about company policy. From you, we find out if those policies work. Your honesty is refreshing, and even entertaining at times.
For instance, when was the last time a top executive - other than Bob Lutz, maybe - was this blunt: "Al Gore . . . needs to spend time in China where everyone owns a bicycle. . . . U.S. engineers don't make the grade. Going to the University of Michigan for four years makes me no more an engineer than going to McDonald's makes me a hamburger. (Students) receive instruction from faculty that have rarely held a job in the industry. The blind leads the blind."
Now this guy has something to say, and for obvious reasons this foreign-born senior design engineer now living and working in Michigan asks that his name not be given. It's amazing how uninhibited people become under the cloak of confidentiality.
He was one of more than 350 North American engineers - a majority of them from suppliers - who participated in this year's opinion poll.
The survey confirms many of the beliefs we've held about the industry - that suppliers are adding engineers while automakers are cutting back, that there is an engineering shortage, that communication is the greatest challenge in global engineering (see chart, p.46), that cost pressures are hurting the engineering quality of future vehicles and that the idea of an Al Gore presidency frightens a lot of automotive people.
But for all of the pessimism, some of our respondents were surprisingly upbeat.
John Longnecker, a 33-year-old electronics applications engineer at Detroit Diesel Corp., quite possibly could be the most optimistic engineer in Motown.
He'd encourage his kids to go into automotive engineering as a career, he's happy with his current job, he sees more engineering work coming to (instead of leaving) the U.S., and his company has been adding engineers. He's also in the minority (26%) of supplier respondents who say an Al Gore presidency wouldn't hurt the industry.
What's most curious is that Mr. Longnecker makes his living from diesel engines, which in their current state will be outlawed by environmental regulations in California in 2004.
How can he be so upbeat? To him, the glass is half-full. "I wouldn't want to be in any other business," Mr. Longnecker writes. "Great opportunities, excellent benefits, exciting challenges."
The survey enlightened us with a few surprises as well. Despite all of the griping from engineers about cost cuts, most of you (65% for OEM respondents and 62% for suppliers) are happy in your current jobs.
And considerably more OEM engineers (51%) than supplier engineers (29%) see lowering vehicle weight as a top priority for OEMs.
But sometimes the surprises came in comments from respondents. Ray Binson, who designs front-wheel-drive components at GKN Automotive in Auburn Hills, MI, writes that the industry needs to give more attention to quality, safety and environmental issues.
"These have taken a back seat to style," Mr. Binson writes. He proposes cuts in employee bonuses at all suppliers and OEMs to provide the necessary cash. Yes, he'd accept a cut in his bonus, which is less than $1,000 a year. The big savings, he says, would come from the million-dollar executive bonuses.
Mr. Binson also broached a topic that is always popular in these surveys: cost pressures from the OEMs and in some cases Tier 1s. "Suppliers are getting squeezed like the underside of a cow," he says.
A sample of other remarks:
n "Cost cut demands have become ridiculous. We're now seeing demands from( 's partsmaking arm) for a 25% cut in prices. With these types of demands, companies will not be able to afford engineers (or any skilled workers) to meet their zero-defect dream. It is becoming very frustrating. Common sense has taken a back seat!"
- Engineering manager, Michigan
n "I don't know howcan last. They've made all their recent gains at the expense of their suppliers. It's my hope that they get a wakeup call soon. Their arrogant 1950s (supplier relations) model makes me want to sell to the competition."
- Senior engineer with
n "OEMs are terribly overstaffed and can't or don't know how to use suppliers in place of the things OEMs used to do. They can't manage their programs according to timelines - too many engineering changes right through start of production and beyond.and run (unfortunately) programs much better!"
- Rich Marks, engineering manager at Hutchinson FTS, Troy, MI
n "Big Three auto-supplier cost analysts are not willing to pay for design/engineering time they are asking suppliers for. They expect suppliers to absorb it as cost of doing business with the Big Three. Suppliers are less willing to dump design time into a product to have it market-tested by customer purchasing and have their design sourced to a different supplier."
- Product engineer from Decatur, IL
n "Lower-cost materials that are not as robust can lead to premature failures. Not as much time is spent to engineer a product to be top quality from the beginning. Too many 'fires' are being put out instead of preventing the failures in the first place."
- Product engineer withInternational Inc.
n "The automotive industry is old and getting obsolete. A new business vision is necessary. New people, new ideas, 'open mind.'"
- Javier Ixba, customer support engineer withPackard
n "Too many bean counters, not engineers, are running the automobile industry." - OEM engineer
With each survey we try to craft several timely questions around particular issues facing engineers. Education was one of those topics this year (see story, p.49).
The biggest complaint among respondents is that too many students come out of engineering school with little or no practical experience. One engineer says some graduates beginning jobs at OEMs can barely read a blueprint.
"True automotive expertise can only be learned through hands-on experience, sometimes many years' experience," writes Michael Velthoven, senior product engineer with DaimlerChrysler.
"High schools should push harder for the kids in shop classes to go into engineering," says A.C. Dapoz, a fastener engineer at. "They are the ones who think 'outside the box.' Book-smart people lack imagination!"
A DaimlerChrysler powertrain engineer writes: "So little of what is learned at school is used at work that the engineering degree is mostly a screening device - anyone who can earn one is overqualified technically. Work experience is vastly underrated."
Dharmendra Patel had plenty of practical experience when he received his engineering degree from Gujarat University in India. But then, he studied nothing else in obtaining his four-year bachelor's degree. In India, engineering students take no courses in humanities, political science or literature - only engineering-related courses - and get about one month of vacation a year.
Mr. Patel came to the U.S. initially to work for a supplier, and now he works forMotor Co. as a reliability engineer on the Taurus/Sable platform.
Another newsworthy topic we explored this year was the merger ofCorp. with -Benz AG. Overall, a nearly identical proportion of respondents (56% for suppliers and 58% for OEMs) expect cost and quality pressures to intensify for DaimlerChrysler suppliers (see chart,p.55).
But apparently it's too early to ask this, as more than one-third of respondents from both sides said they were not sure or did not answer.
Three additional questions were asked only of supplier respondents about DaimlerChrysler and its supplier relations. But once again, too many people didn't answer or were unsure. The only number of significance was the 57% of suppliers who don't see it getting any harder or easier to sellon new technology since the merger.
That doesn't mean our respondents aren't thinking about DaimlerChrysler. A few had some interesting comments:
"If it becomes more difficult to do business with DaimlerChrysler, it is because DaimlerChrysler wants to remain competitive worldwide," writes Brian Jones, manufacturing engineer with Ohio-based Metal Forge Co. "The 'Buy American' attitude has only served to make it more difficult for American companies and products to compete in America, let alone worldwide."
A DaimlerChrysler engineer provides a harsh assessment of his company's information systems:
"The state of information technology at DC should be an embarrassment for a Fortune 25 company," he writes. "There seems to be no coherent IS strategy at DC. Hopefully the Germans will quickly see through the charade and clean house."
And, finally, a voice of reason from a GM engineering manager who is concerned about the personal toll of heavy travel in this increasingly global industry:
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"Global engineering should take place with engineers from around the globe who can go home at night - not with U.S. engineers sent around the globe, away from family and friends and their parent company," he writes. "Compensation helps, but isn't enough." o
Where's it all going?
We asked if more engineering work is leaving or coming to the U.S., figuring that you would have some insight on this in such a global industry. But we forgot that most engineers, toiling over minute details in product designs, rarely have time for such big-picture concerns.
As a result, about half of responding engineers from both OEMs and suppliers say they aren't sure.
As a follow-up to what we thought was a good question, we asked where engineering work is going, if it's leaving the U.S. The responses were as diverse as the United Nations: Canada, South America (Brazil), Mexico, Europe (Spain, U.K., Germany, Poland, Austria), Turkey, India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
And some of you said too much engineering work just isn't being done.
"Suppliers have too much turnover in manpower and have 'thrifted' their labs, design staffs, etc., to meet cost targets," writes one DaimlerChrysler product engineer.
Other quotes from our survey respondents:
n "Auto executives are still observing outdated business models. They are trying to become marketing companies, rather than manufacturing experts - the only true competency that has long-lasting capability to add value and contribute to shareholder value. The program managers that don't want engines and transmissions at today's costs will love paying triple for outsourced ones." - Product engineer
n "I feel U.S. schools should have programs where a whole year is devoted to the specific field or specialty the student has chosen, not just a few classes. For example, in electrical engineering, a whole year of system control classes could lead to a job in powertrain control module development."
- Application engineer in vehicle navigation at VDO Car Communication, New Jersey
n "The U.S. has been losing its best and brightest to fields other than engineering."
- Rich Marks, engineering manager at Hutchinson
FTS, Troy, MI
n "Changes to meet global warming challenges and emissions-reduction issues will be forced, not willingly accepted. Likewise, fuel cell cars will come when absolutely necessary, kicking and screaming."
- DaimlerChrysler design engineer
n "CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) is a bad way to push for improved fuel economy, since it fails to recognize that consumers purchase a vehicle for its utility, not economy. Improving the fuel economy of trucks and sport/utility vehicles (while preserving passenger/cargo space and trailer tow capabilities) would conserve more gasoline than passenger car CAFE increases, since trucks outsell cars and achieve lower miles per gallon than cars in general."
- Powertrain engineer
n "Vehicles are becoming so complex that I'm not sure we can predict how they behave in any circumstance or, even, what are the most risky circumstances for which to verify the product. Senior management doesn't always have the experience to help the integration of the product or the time to understand the consequences of the decision made. The saving grace is that every OEM is in the same predicament."
- DaimlerChrysler executive
n And then there are the Japanese, who stick to a good thing once they find it. Robert Laumer, an engineer atR&D Americas Inc. in Ohio, writes that cost pressures are not hurting the engineering quality of future vehicles at his company. "Not at Honda," he writes. "Standards remain the same."
n John Calow, engineering project manager at Benteler Automotive, writes that his work is rewarding, but becoming more frustrating. "Just doing a job correctly and honestly is a great reward," he writes. "However, the auto industry is too fast-paced and too lean."
n "Chrysler was the least demanding of the Big Three. No more."
- Name withheld
n "Outsourcing for cost considerations is everything. Any effect on quality is inconsequential."
- Engineer at Cummins Engine Co. o