The Michigan Economic Development Corp. wants to open a technology center to develop fuel cells in metro Detroit and is considering initiatives to assist the Michigan auto industry.

“We haven’t decided on a location at this point,” Mike Finney, vice president of Emerging Business Sectors for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) tells Ward’s. “We’re essentially following up the results of the fuel cell study that we commissioned through the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). They have five specific recommendations coming out of that study. The most significant of which is the establishment of a powertrain center of excellence.”

In addition to a technological hub for fuel cell development, MEDC is budgeting $30 million annually on worker training for the manufacturing sector and is helping to commercialize intellectual properties that exist at universities. It also spent $60 million to set up 18 regional centers throughout the state that provide a variety of employee instructional courses.

CAR research says Michigan’s automotive suppliers are on shaky financial ground and can use the help. During the first quarter of 2001, the average profit margin for partsmakers was –0.5% while the S & P 500 Index average was 6.5%. Three quarters of suppliers earned just 4 cents or less for every $1 of sales. And nearly half (45%) say the price they receive for parts doesn’t acknowledge re-capitalization needs.

With 30,000 Michigan jobs related to powertrain operations -- and thousands more tied to the auto industry in general -- the reasons are clear for MEDC’s assistance. ‘If we’re not on the leading edge of what’s happening in this advanced powertrain area, the state of Michigan could potentially be a very big loser,” reasons Mr. Finney.

The fuel cell tech center initially will be housed within CAR facilities in Ann Arbor, MI. While the permanent location likely will be located in southeastern Michigan, that decision won’t be made until it’s clear who is taking part in the project, Mr. Finney reveals. Automakers and other significant power consumers are expected to participate. “We envision it going on beyond automotive. But because of the activity that’s taking place in automotive right now we see the most immediate opportunity there,” says Mr. Finney.

General Motors Corp. confirms it is considering involvement. “We’ll definitely look at the specifics of this opportunity, and participate if appropriate,” says Larry Burns, GM vice president of Research and Development and Planning.

MEDC isn’t putting all of its eggs in the proverbial basket, however. Besides advanced manufacturing, MEDC also is helping develop the life sciences (pharmaceuticals and biotech) and information technology sectors.

-- Brian Corbett