With bare concrete-block walls and floor beams covered in plastic vapour barrier, the dark and dingy basement in Jeremy Chambers’s Michigan farmhouse doesn’t look like a lab for a multibillion-dollar automaker.
“I usually do my woodworking down here – that’s why I have the plastic,” says Chambers, a senior technician with Nissan North America, Inc.
But for the next few weeks at least, Chambers’ basement is a lab, equipped with soldering irons, hand tools, electrical cable, shrink tubing and documentation to guide his creations. Today, Chambers has been hand-building wiring harnesses to be tested on future Nissan vehicles. A tube-type fluorescent light fixture hangs from the ceiling, illuminating the old kitchen table that’s been converted into a workbench.
Chambers lives with his wife and three sons in Casco, Mich., about a 45-minute drive from the Nissan Technical Center North America in Farmington Hills, Mich. The facility, which employs about 1,200 people, supports the design and development of all Nissan and Infiniti vehicles sold in North and South America. On March 23, it was caught up in the sweeping stay-at-home order issued by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. All but about 20 per cent of the workforce, deemed essential to manufacturing, were told to go home and stay home.
There was just one problem, says Chambers. “The automotive industry quits for no man – or disease.”
With just six hours to prepare before the mandated closure, Chambers packed up his vehicle with supplies and moved his lab to his house.
Across the globe, automotive designers and engineers have gotten creative as their high-tech work environments have closed. With labs reduced to bare-bones staff, automakers are relying on home-based work and video conferencing to continue the design and engineering projects that will keep new-model schedules on track.
It’s not always easy to keep the work under wraps. Engineers are blasting audio equipment in their driveways and turning heads as they prowl public streets with unreleased vehicles.
“There are some interesting things that people have been able to do out of their homes,” says Bob Flotkoetter, director of technology planning and research at Nissan’s technical centre, speaking from his Michigan home on a recent Zoom call with Canadian journalists.
And it’s not just about working remotely on their laptops; Flotkoetter says his team is finding that some urgent research and testing can be done away from a lab environment. Suspending such tests, he says, could delay long-range product development.
“My team is responsible for technologies that are 10 years out,” says Flotkoetter. “We are not ramping down in that area at all. We’re doing everything we can to ensure this unique environment will not impact our product development.”
Ford Motor Co. turned to at-home engineering as it prepares to deliver its Mustang Mach-E model late this year. The battery-electric performance crossover is considered critical to the company, and it was about to get final fine-tuning of pre-production models when COVID-19 arrived.
“We just can’t take a pause,” says Rob Iorio, the Mach-E’s engineering manager.
Husein Dakroub, the Mach-Es SYNC software supervisor, says engineers are testing the car’s SYNC infotainment system at home, including navigation, audio, and hands-free and voice-command features. Not surprisingly, the vehicle is capturing lots of attention from neighbours who stop by for a glimpse.
“The vehicle is eye candy,” Dakroub says. “Everyone is trying to take a picture.”
Workers who have spent their careers in office environments are also having to figure out how to find a work-life balance when they’re working near family or helping with cooking and child-care duties.
“That’s why I found myself in the basement,” quips Chambers. He says he needs to be away from the constant distraction of his 9-, 12- and 16-year-old boys, who are also confined to home.
Although the computer is always there, Chambers says he’s not necessarily working more. Rather, he is working different hours – spending some afternoons puttering in the greenhouse but then working late into the night. “I find my sleep patterns are destroyed.”
Robert Dagg, chief technical officer for Altair, a Detroit-based global supplier of product-development software, says his company has seen an “increase in the intensity” in the use of its cloud-based software from engineers working from home. “People are very focused on their work.”
Between 60,000 and 100,000 engineers around the world use Altair’s software daily, he says, including automotive and aerospace companies such as Bombardier. Because Altair’s software is cloud-based, the company had to set up secured licensed servers that would allow engineers to work from home, where consumer levels of bandwidth and use of virtual private networks (VPN) can hamper data transmission. With disruptions of subcontractors in India, Dagg says, Altair has also helped domestic clients bring some off-shore engineering work back in-house.
Ford’s Fiorio says workers have to pace themselves to avoid burnout. With early-morning calls from Europe and late-evening chats with China, “You’d just be on the computer all day.”
To compensate, he organizes online social events, like four separate 30-minute “happy hours” on Fridays.
Flotkoetter says video-conferencing tools such as Zoom work well for real time cross-continent debugging discussions, but such tools are not a cure-all.
“A big part of what we do is hands-on experience,” says Flotkoetter. “There is that intangible benefit to getting your hands on the product.” Some testing, such as emissions or battery testing, “we really can’t do outside of the laboratory environment,” he adds.
Ford’s Dakroub says he’s created virtual hangouts to compensate for the lost cafeteria conversations.
“We hang out [online] over lunch,” he says. “We all start talking, and then someone picks up a guitar, and there’s a piano or a harmonica. We’re engineers; we’re always trying to find solutions to problems.”
The disrupted work environment, however, has also fueled creative thinking, says Flotkoetter.
“When you have the opportunity to go outside your normal realm, you see all kinds of innovation,” he says. So far, that innovation has spawned several patent applications for ideas that will likely appear in future products.
Aleyna Kapur, calibration engineer for Ford’s Mach-E project, says engineers working from home are now “in the shoes of customers” and seeing things differently. For example, they might think more about the charging infrastructure a consumer will need at home for their electric car.
While the insights are valuable, Kapur can’t wait to return to the group lab environment.
“I sure miss my team,” she says.
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