Vehicle lightweighting is shifting jobs in Southeast Michigan

Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

Over the past four decades, automotive manufacturers have been downsizing vehicles and removing weight to meet improved fuel economy. This has been in response to consumer demand, requirements to meet federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations (CAFE standards) and rising costs and uncertain availability of petroleum fuels.

Gone are the 7.5L V-8 engines in 2 1/2 ton vehicles with massive front grilles, expansive use of cast iron components, overall length dimensions nearly 20 feet and fuel economies of 10-15 mpg. Today’s vehicles are smaller, lighter, aerodynamic, typically powered by V-6 and I-4 engines, and use more aluminum and composite polymer materials. CAFE performance of a manufacturer’s production fleet today is approximately 28 mpg.

However, even with these substantial vehicle size and weight reduction trends, and improved fuel economy numbers, “we ain’t seen nothing yet!” New fuel economy regulations will jump to 34.1 mpg in 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. Alternative high efficiency powertrains and vehicle weight will be critical factors in achieving these new fuel economy performance ratings.

So how will automotive manufacturers meet these new requirements? Take a look at Ford. In addition to new, smaller, high performing Eco-Boost engines, the 2015 Ford F-150 will launch an aluminum body vehicle that is estimated to save approximately 750 pounds in overall vehicle weight compared to its steel-bodied counterpart. In addition, other powertrain and subsystems in the entire integrated vehicle are contributing weight reductions as well.  The Center for Automotive Research, Automotive News and many other organizations and publications have presented substantial information on these topics and trends for several years.

All of this points to the need for more engineering and manufacturing research and development of alternative materials that are lighter but also carry the strength, manufacturability, durability and cost effectiveness requirements of products developed for customer satisfaction, crash worthiness and improved fuel economy. Recognizing the material R&D needs of commercial industries and the military, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy have recently created a public-private partnership that will develop and implement advanced lightweight materials manufacturing technologies. Education and training programs are also identified as key deliverables to prepare the workforce.

The name of this partnership is the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute (ALMMII).  ALMMII’s mission is to serve U.S. manufacturing sectors in aerospace, automotive, defense, rail and heavy truck industries.  The scope of deliverables will address the entire transportation supply chain, from raw material processing, through design, development, production and service. ALMMII is led by the University of Michigan, Ohio-based manufacturing technology nonprofit EWI and Ohio State University. Its main office will be in Southeast Michigan, with significant activities in Ann Arbor and Columbus.

In addition to the three organizations named above, more than 50 other companies, universities, nonprofit research institutions and workforce development agencies will be involved. ALMMII will seek additional small, medium and large companies to become members of the institute to collaborate in the development and production-readiness of materials research. The DOD award for ALMMII is $70 million in federal funding over five years, matched by $78 million from consortium partners.

It has been estimated that up to 10,000 new jobs may emerge in related manufacturing businesses. With a shift to lightweighting, entire product and manufacturing development processes must be reviewed and validated before launching into production, with the end goal of ensuring customer satisfaction and safety. This could mean major shifts in jobs and related processes from engineering and design (safety, durability, efficiency, ergonomics, quality assurance, modeling and simulation) to production (e.g., joining, fastening, casting, stamping, machining, etc.). As such, ALMMII targets engineering and technical education programs for updated materials courses and curricula to educate and train the next generation of manufacturing technicians and engineers

With such market shifts taking place, the Michigan Academy for Green Mobility Alliance (MAGMA), a partnership of private companies and public education and training organizations, is about to embark on a process to learn more about the future of automotive manufacturing jobs. WIN and its Michigan Works! Agency, community college, university and other partners will be part of this effort. The end goal is to ensure that companies have the talent they need for success and that present and future workers benefit from these emerging job opportunities.

Al Lecz, director of employer strategies for the Workforce Intelligence Network, provided research and content for this blog.


Leave a Reply