Auto Tech Summit Spotlights Crossroads Dilemma

Auburn University’s Greg Harris, who teaches engineering and directs the Southern Alliance for Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing, talks about rapid changes in the auto industry. Photo by Joe De Sciose

Auto manufacturing technology is speeding ahead so quickly that it risks leaving many in the industry behind. That was the theme issued by several speakers May 8 at the Automotive Advanced Technology Summit in Birmingham.

“We’re in a time of flux right now,” says Greg Harris, an associate professor in Auburn University’s College of Engineering and director of the Southern Alliance for Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing. “Vehicles aren’t going to go away, but (the industry) is changing. … And it’s changing at a rapid pace. If you have not started on your digital journey, you’re already behind.”

Indeed, the summit was filled with high-tech catch phrases such as plug-and-play functionality, integrated capabilities, data analytics and machine-to-machine communications. Tom Shoupe, executive vice president and COO at Honda of America, says that success in auto manufacturing will stand on how well manufacturers and suppliers can incorporate new technology into production.

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“We are at a crossroads,” Shoupe says. The coming years will require management “with one eye on ensuring that we’re meeting the needs of our customers today, and the other eye on preparing for the needs of tomorrow.”

Harris says part of the dilemma is a lack of a consensus for how to move forward, unlike the days when Ford’s unveiling of the assembly line made the path to greater efficiency seem clear.

“Other companies could look and say, “That’s what we want to be like. Those are the things we want to do. Let’s copy that,’ ” Harris notes. “But what do you do when you start talking about cyber-visible systems and information flows?”

Technology also poses challenges at hiring time, which has already begun at the new Mazda Toyota plant under construction in Huntsville. Mark Brazeal, vice president of administration for Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, says the first workers will arrive on site in July, two years before the plant is scheduled to begin production.

Recent studies have indicated more than 500,000 jobs across all of manufacturing in the United States currently are unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.

Meeting the need for workers requires great training and a new mindset to regard manufacturing as a good career path, says Kevin Burgess, assistant manager general affairs for Toyota Manufacturing Mississippi. “We believe that manufacturing is the backbone of our country and the fabric of our communities.”

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