The key to the American automotive industry's future success depends on new ideas and thinking beyond traditional concepts — the essence of mechatronics, according to Tom Watson, vice president of Engineering and Technical Planning of Light Vehicle Systems at ArvinMeritor and former lead engineer of the Ford Motors Co. Hybrid Escape.
“We need to think outside the box,” Watson told 90 engineers at the Mechatronics 2.0 Conference and Expo in Dearborn, MI in September. “Engineers need to be the spark plug of innovation in their companies.”
Along with Watson, keynote speakers at the Mechatronics 2.0 Conference and Expo included David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research and Andrzej M. Pawlak, new business technology development manager at Delphi Corp.
The all-day event, hosted by editors of Design News, Control Engineering, EDN and Test & Measurement World, was designed to help automotive engineers learn about mechatronics and tackle mechatronic integration challenges.
Watson began his speech by riding in on a mechatronic marvel called the Easy-Glider, an electric scooter similar to the Segway. The Easy-Glider weighs less and is a quarter of the cost of a Segway, according to Watson. It was developed by Swiss engineer Stephan Soder as a way to give more speed to Rollerblading. Watson made an example of it by explaining alternative transportation is the way of the future.
Watson asked engineers in the audience to think hard about how to drive innovation — in their companies and within themselves.
He said American engineers today need to think about tomorrow's transportation in order to build more effective cars and innovative transportation devices.
“When you turn heads and stop people — literally and figuratively — you know you've hit innovation,” he said in regard to developing non-traditional concept cars like hybrids or Segways.
He suggested that in the future, transportation may take on a whole new meaning.
“I'm not advocating for ditching all our old concepts — but we need to loosen up and look out 50 or 100 years — we may not be building vehicles or cars, but entirely new transportation systems,” he said, noting it's possible in the future people will only go short distances.
Engineers may have to educate themselves, due to reduced professional development benefits offered by their companies in this economy, according to Watson. He called for more systems' engineering to be taught at the university level in order to meet the demand for mechatronics and system engineering jobs.
“Don't let today's downsizing stop you,” he said, noting individuals need to take personal control of educating themselves on new engineering techniques and tools.
He said engineers aren't the only ones who should change, companies also have to.
Even at ArvinMeritor, the company has had to rethink its values and think outside the box. At one time, ArvinMeritor hired those with a strong background in mechanical engineering, but the company's hiring strategy is now changing and instead the company is recruiting talent with experience in high technology, controls engineering and a solid foundation in mechatronics.
To drive his point home, Watson said the hybrid vehicle is the best example of a mechatronic product and is one that dates back to 1898 with the development of the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, a hybrid made of four electric motors driven by batteries and a generator. The vehicle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche for Jacob Lohner.
“At the turn of the century, 40 percent of the vehicles on the road were motor drive, 20 percent were internal combustion and 40 percent steam,” Watson said.
Low fuel and oil costs, along with short battery life, are some of the reasons the first hybrid era never gained popularity, according to Watson. The high costs of gas and oil are now the reason the hybrid is popular, but he also credits Toyota Motor Co. with yielding this new era.
Using Toyota Motor Co. as an example, he said prior to its Prius Hybrid's release in the late 1990s, Toyota took few risks. However, a few steps of thinking beyond the traditional allowed the company to go back to the hybrid and that move has propelled Toyota to a new level of productivity and global competition.
He predicts over the next decade nearly every vehicle will have some hybrid component. “Oil is not going to come down,” he says. “The world has woken up.”