It's easy to feel euphoric about the North American auto industry and its torrid sales pace, as well as new technology that is driving the industry to new heights.
But participants in Ward's Auto World's 22nd annual engineering survey make an intriguing revelation - that the concept of global engineering isn't working very well. At least half of the supplier and automaker respondents say so in our survey, up significantly over last year.
Without psychoanalyzing the 469 participants, it's hard to say what it means for sure. But it shows that North American prosperity does not translate into global success. In addition, it suggests that the "global village" quickly created by the Internet remains elusive in the challenging and tradition-laden sector of manufacturing.
The auto industry's transition to a digital environment, in other words, is in its infancy.
Cyberspace figures into another possible explanation with regard to global engineering. In a follow-up question, our respondents overwhelmingly choose "communication" when asked to identify the greatest challenges associated with global engineering.
Despite videoconfer-encing and e-mail, nothing replaces face-to-face contact. These new electronic communication tools are useful, but they can't teach you how to speak someone else's language.
The Internet is a great resource for cultural information about these far-away lands, but people need the time and dedication to actually learn about them.
Apparently what the global auto industry needs more than anything is translation software that allows engineers in Tokyo, Frankfurt and Detroit to speak in their native tongues and still be understood. Wouldn't that be cool!
When asked about the greatest challenges associated with global engineering, respondents wrote comments such as, "selling Americans out to foreigners," "political conflict" and "protecting turf."
Technology plays into a few other interesting findings in our latest survey.
Nearly 40% of OEM and supplier respondents aren't looking to e-commerce as a wondrous new tool that will simplify their work, and another third aren't sure if e-commerce will even affect their work at all. Once again, it promises to be a challenging transition for the auto industry.
It suggests that the zeal with which top management at automakers (namelyCorp. and Motor Co.) is attacking e-commerce has not spread throughout the respective organizations, or at least to the engineering departments.
And guess what type of engineer is in the greatest demand in the auto industry: electrical/electronic (18%). The engineers ostensibly capable of driving the newest technologies at automakers apparently are the hardest to find, probably lured away by more financially attractive positions in consumer electronics and aerospace.
Engineering careers generally pay well, but you have to wonder how high salaries will be climbing for automotive engineers, given the shortage that seems to be intensifying (see story, p.49).
At this year's Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit (March 6-9), some suppliers will use their exhibit space to recruit potential new engineers. Sure, SAE is always fertile ground for identifying talent, but it appears recruiting will be more aggressive this year.
Plus, some exhibitors will scale back the presence of their own engineers at their booths at SAE because they cannot afford to have valuable people away from their regular jobs that long. Someone's gotta hold down the fort.
In our survey, roughly two-thirds of respondents say their companies are experiencing engineering shortages, although the deficiency appears to be more severe for suppliers (66%) than automakers (58%). Last year, fewer respondents identified engineering shortages - 61% for suppliers and 52% for OEMs.
It's worth noting that auto-maker and supplier respondents can't agree on who has the better engineers. Automakers say they do, while suppliers say the same thing. A proud bunch, aren't they?
Along a similar line of questioning, we asked OEM respondents if their companies could save money if their engineers worked more closely with their supplier counterparts, and vice versa.
Most respondents (60% for OEMs and 48% for suppliers) agree they could save money working more closely together. So why doesn't it happen if it's so obvious to everyone? The answer probably lies in the story we wrote a year ago (see WAW - March '99, p.49) about engineers as technicians first and communicators second.
We also asked supplier respondents which automaker has the best engineers, and we were a bit surprised by the results. DaimlerChrysler Corp. was tops (23%) followed by(18%), then GM (11%).
Motor Corp. and Motor Co. Ltd. shared fourth place (8.5%), perhaps unfairly, as Japanese engineers are known for producing top-quality cars.
Are the Japanese merely falling victim to a North American bias that inevitably is reflected when polling our readers?
At least one American respondent, however, expresses frustration while marveling at what the Japanese have accomplished. "We try so hard to make a quality product," the respondent writes. "How do the Japanese have the highest ratings for all aspects of quality/reliability/customer satisfaction?"
Perhaps another respondent can answer that question: "More pressure is being placed on suppliers to reduce cost and increase quality. I do not believe that OEMs have applied the same pressure internally."
Despite a growing list of new opportunities for engineers, those who work in automotive seem pleased with their choice.
Most respondents would encourage their children to pursue careers in automotive engineering (62% for OEMs and 56% for suppliers), and if they had it to do over, they'd still be auto engineers.
Most supplier and OEM respondents say they are happy where they are (73% for OEMs and 60% for suppliers), although suppliers are readily identified as offering better career opportunities for engineers. OEMs are handing off more and more design and engineering work to suppliers, so this makes sense.
Still, a recent nationwide study revealed that the days of an engineer taking a job with an automotive company and staying until retirement might be long gone.
The study by Lansing, MI, polling firm EPIC/MRA found that auto engineers are more willing to switch employers than other types of technical professionals.
In the area of career development, it appears that advanced degrees such as a master's of science or a doctorate are more desirable for OEM engineers (53%) than for their supplier counterparts (41%), according to our survey.
Still, one respondent writes that, "an associate's degree with experience is better than a master's degree without experience."
Another respondent holds ivory tower engineers in low regard: "I personally have worked with engineers with a higher degree than mine who couldn't read a caliper, have never used a micrometer, nor could they use simple trig to figure out a problem," he writes. "Maybe if some of us with more skill and knowledge than titles would get involved earlier, there wouldn't be cars like the redesigned Taurus and Impala. Maybe the Mustang Cobra would actually make 320 hp and be as fast as advertised."
The respondent refers to the engineering snafu that took some of the bite out of the high-powered Cobra (see related story, Auto Talk, p.31). Mustang enthusiasts quickly picked up on the deficiency.
For the first time with this year's study, we tried to identify the type of automotive engineer that is in greatest demand.
Mechanical (16%) took a close second to electrical/electronic (18%), followed by product development (8% for OEMs and 14% for suppliers) and design (9%). Frankly, we expected higher demand for software engineers, and we found that automakers and suppliers often differ widely on the type of engineers they need.
Engineers with a "mechatronic" background (schooled in both mechanical and electronics) are sought by suppliers (6%), but not automakers (1%). Likewise, powertrain engineers are eagerly sought by automakers (5%), but not suppliers (1%), which is not surprising, given that powertrain development remains in the hands of OEMs.
Which brings us to another intriguing item in the survey. For the first time, we asked about the potential of automakers outsourcing more engine development to suppliers. We figure everything else is being outsourced. Could engines be far behind?
To some it probably sounds like a nutty idea, but a quarter of the OEM respondents say "yes," their companies are interested in outsourcing a greater degree of powertrain development to suppliers.
Supplier respondents were asked a similar question, and, once again, more than a quarter say automakers are showing more interest in outsourcing a greater degree of powertrain development.
Still, there is great uncertainty among respondents about powertrain outsourcing, likely because a lot of the engineers surveyed have nothing to do with powertrain.
But that didn't stop respondents from commenting on the future of new powertrain technologies. Diesel engines in passenger cars will see little growth over the next 10 years (according to 60% of respondents), and it will be at least five years before a practical family sedan powered by a fuel cell is available in the U.S. (according to 72% of respondents).
We also loaded up our survey with questions about safety, always a hot topic with engineers. Once again, most respondents (moreso for suppliers) say that cost pressures are hurting the engineering quality of future vehicles, but there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether safety has taken a back seat to cost.
By more than a 2-to-1 margin (68% to 28%), OEM respondents say that a greater emphasis is not placed on cost than on vehicle safety. Supplier respondents, however, are almost evenly divided (46.5% to 52%) on the question. Dosuppliers know something that automakers don't?
It's odd because the answers were much more uniform when we asked questions about product liability and recent huge jury awards against automakers for alleged engineering negligence.
Supplier and OEM respondents say overwhelmingly (91%) that they have never witnessed vehicle safety being intentionally compromised to cut costs, and that they have never been involved in a decision where cost-versus-safety issues were discussed (more than 73%).
"We might compromise on quality but never safety," writes one engineer.
"Engineers do not decide cost-safety trade-offs - management and safety experts from legal departments do," writes another.
Still, a third admits, when all safety standards are met, "cost is the overriding factor."