Everyone speaks the international language of love. Alas, the same cannot be said of engineering. One engineer's fascia, wing and sump are another's dashboard, fender and oil pan. And if you don't know what a scuttle (cowl) is ... well, what's the matter, don't you speak English, mate?
Like it or not, the auto industry is globalizing at a furious pace. Automakers and suppliers are gobbling up one another and extending their engineering resources to the far corners of the globe. No matter how deeply you toil in the bowels of your corporation, the responsibility of communicating with those who may not speak your native tongue is an inescapable reality to almost every technical person. Soon - if not already - you will be forced to deal with other engineers who speak English as their second or third language, if at all.
If you're lucky, you'll share basic communication problems. If it's worse, you might just end up offending one another to boot.
Consider the primary sticky points:
n Accents and dialects (theirs and yours). There's the problem of American English versus the Queen's English. Not only do Brits speak the latter, of course, but so do millions of others, including Europeans and Asians who learned English as a foreign language. At the very least, many U.S. engineers will be chagrined to find you drive a saloon (sedan), you don't drink in one.
n Cultural differences. Engineers may think they already have plenty of opportunities to unwittingly offend someone, but just wait. Looking someone in the eye may be considered a sign of sincerity and honesty to an American, but it's considered rude in many Asian cultures. American engineers say German engineers' forthrightness in meetings can be downright brutal at times, leading to hard feelings. Germans, on the other hand, complain many Americans and Japanese are so circumspect that meetings can drag on for hours without getting to the root of the matter.
Germans often are offended when Americans can't walk out of a heated discussion and let go with a social beer afterwards. And if a Japanese engineer is nodding his head at you, it means he understands your point - it doesn't mean he agrees with you.
n Casual communications. Americans think nothing of dashing off terse e-mail messages requesting information from strangers, or leaving voice mail requests. Most other cultures place a much higher value on face-to-face communication; e-mail and voice mail from strangers can be construed as rude intrusions.
n Different methodologies. Europeans, Asians and Americans all approach engineering projects and problems differently. German engineers, many of whom get their doctorates in engineering before tackling their first assignment in the real world, tend to approach projects and problems in the analytical fashion of academia. Japanese engineers also are usually characterized as intensely analytical; daring, individualistic thinking is rarely rewarded. Americans are prone to immediately charge head first into a project. Another angle: each individual company, whether it isMotor Co., Motor Corp., or AB Volvo, has its own unique corporate culture and methodologies.
The list goes on and on.
Are you ready? Is this going to be a serious problem or a trivial issue easily surmounted by typically intelligent engineers?
Interviews with translators, training specialists, and engineers at high corporate levels - and in the trenches - suggest there definitely will be difficulties. The depth of the rift depends on the adaptability of the individuals involved - and the ability of project leaders to initiate cooperation and move things forward when necessary.
A stereotype exists about engineers - a convention developed over time and probably with some justification: engineers are inherently poor communicators because their work is narrowly focused and mathematics-intensive. If communicating with people in their own language can be a challenge, how in this era of global engineering can they discuss product design with an overseas colleague in a foreign language?
But some observers say today's engineering schools are graduating students who are more diverse - and that engineers themselves are more self-aware about their purported communication deficiencies.
"I'm seeing a new generation of engineers who are going beyond their specialty. I'm seeing a much more rounded business approach," says Ken Nelson, spokesman for supplier Calsonic North America. A key product for the Japanese-based company is heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
"These are people who understand more about business development and market research and pleasing your customer. When you sit in a meeting and someone tells you an HVAC system can be only so many millimeters long because they want more leg room, the engineer understands it. Engineers are communicating beyond just numbers today," Mr. Nelson says.
Calsonic is restructuring its North American engineering operations by moving 13 engineers from Irvine, CA, to the company's new headquarters in Farmington Hills, MI, to better serve its global customers.
Most global companies support - or even offer on-site - foreign language programs for interested employees.
and Corp. have dedicated departments to teach American employees how to train and understand employees from other cultures, and also have programs to help foreign employees understand Westerners.
Companies such asNorth America Inc. routinely provide cultural and language training for new employees, including sending some to Japan for stints of two years or more to learn the company's engineering methodology and absorb the culture of Honda and Japan.
But getting Americans to learn and stay fluent in another language is an enormous challenge. With English evolving as the world's "language of management," as one U.S. automaker executive explains, many Americans feel they can afford to be parochial when it comes to language.
There may be some justification in that ethnocentric posture. Even at Germany-based Siemens Automotive, only around 10% of the engineers at the Auburn Hills, MI, headquarters speak German, based on company estimates.
English is the official language at Daim-lerChrysler. Siemens made the same move six years ago. And English is a common denominator is other worldwide endeavors, too: not insignificantly, it is the international language of aviation.
"Americans have this mentality that if they speak only English, they'll be okay," a multilingual executive at one Europe-based company says. "But their kids will be in for a rude awakening as we enter a global environment."
When American-born Kregg Wiggins, Siemens' director of powertrain electronics, got a two-year assignment in Germany, he learned the language through a company-provided tutor who also taught Mr. Wiggins' wife and children.
American schools offer - and even require at different levels - foreign languages, but students do not take it out of necessity the way young people in other countries study English.
Meanwhile, in Germany seven years of English is required for all students before they have even reached university, where more advanced English lessons continue, says Juergen Wiesenberger, German-born program manager of powertrain electronics at Siemens.
The merger of-Benz AG and Corp., and Ford's purchase of Volvo's car division, are merely the latest in a long string of events bringing engineers from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds together.
Traditional U.S. automakers have had "global" vehicle programs for decades, of course, including ill-fated ventures such as the 1981 Escort and GM's early '80s J-car, built in six countries but never tried again.
But now the quest to cut costs by commonizing parts, platforms and manufacturing systems in major world markets - in addition to "merger mania" - are internationalizing even small programs and components.
Several years ago GM formed global car and truck "alliances" aimed at developing and producing vehicles worldwide by linking together its three big product development centers in Warren and Pontiac, MI, and Russelsheim, Germany. Supporting them are eight regional engineering centers located in Canada, China, Australia, Sweden, South Africa, Japan, Brazil and Mexico.
Ford also has set up specific vehicle development centers in Europe and the U.S. under its Ford 2000 globalization strategy.
Eventually, as U.S. engineering schools continue to revise their curricula and auto companies and suppliers cultivate a new breed of more worldly, team-oriented engineers, language barriers may become a moot point. But right now communication is one of the biggest roadblocks facing truly global engineering - at least for mostly U.S.-based engineers. That's what the largest plurality of respondents said in Ward's Auto World's latest reader survey of automotive engineers. In fact, communication problems seem to be an issue in all aspects of engineering (see accompanying story, p.67).
Engineers at both OEMs and suppliers ranked communication as a far greater challenge than wide-ranging market demands, varying regulatory standards, travel or time zone differences.
Managing global projects "Is not for the faint of heart," affirms Fred J. Schaafsma, the vehicle line executive in charge of GM's front-drive minivans, one of the automaker's more recent forays into leveraging its global engineering and supply base. Known in the U.S. as the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac TranSport and Oldsmobile Silhouette, the "U-van" also is sold in right- and left-hand drive models in the United Kingdom and Europe as the Vauxhall/Opel Sintra.
Despite inevitable problems, Mr. Schaafsma says forming one development team that included 20 Opel engineers - most of them German - "Was absolutely the right way to go," for the U-van.
Many of Mr. Schaafsma's co-workers would probably be surprised to learn English is his second language. He emigrated from the Netherlands and learned English when he was 15. When co-workers do learn of his background, they often inadvertently commit a faux pas or two when they make comments about Holland or his heritage. A little sensitivity, common sense and learning a few words of a co-worker's native tongue break down most cultural barriers, Mr. Schaafsma says. And enjoying something in common really helps.
"My wife says engineering is a disease, not an occupation," Mr. Schaafsma says. "Engineers have a very common bond. They all basically want to solve problems and have a good time talking about stuff."
Charlie Baker, large project leader and chief engineer atR&D Americas, agrees. A former Saturn Corp. employee who is an 8-year veteran at Honda, he says working with Japanese-speaking engineers now is second nature. "I get accused of knowing more Japanese than I do because I can anticipate the reactions of upper management. It becomes a little predictable if you understand the cultural context."
Learning the Japanese written language is especially difficult for Westerners, Mr. Baker admits. "The saving grace is that good engineers relate well to other good engineers. The thought process becomes similar enough because you can use a kind of short-hand, with lots of sketching, section cuts, and diagrams," he says.
Jeremy Hall, 36, a senior engineer in Honda's engine design department, speaks fluent Japanese after a 2 1/2-year assignment at Honda in Japan. Yet despite his facility with the language, he, too, says pictographs, sketches and various "hieroglyphics" are key communication tools among Japanese and American engineers.
Many employees of Japan or Germany-based corporations say they often resort to a combination of English and Japanese or German to communicate, called something like "Jinglish."
Fortunately for Americans, many English engineering and computer terms such as "software," ETC (electronic throttle control) and VVT (variable valve timing) are useduniversally in Europe (see sidebar, p.45).
Even so, many engineers, particularly those who are middle-aged and older and from Midwestern backgrounds, find the idea of learning a new language or at least communicating regularly with "foreigners" a daunting proposition.
The message to them is: Get over it, and get with the program. Honda's Mr. Hall says he had no special language skills before he tackled Japanese. He just got tired of sitting in meetings where he couldn't understand what was being said, and starting listening and studying. "It's opened a lot of doors," he says.
Honda's Mr. Baker adds that switching from calling a hood a "bonnet" is trivial.
And GM's Mr. Schaafsma says most U-van team members found the international aspects enriching personally and professionally. But ultimately, personal reservations do not matter, Mr. Schaafsma says, putting on his bosses' hat. "We're going to work on behalf of the customer. Teamwork is not optional." - with Tom Murphy