Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Lutz - American Engineers Need To Do More Engineering
General Motors Corp. executive Bob Lutz said Tuesday that U.S. automakers could streamline their design process if American engineers were trained more like their Asian and European counterparts.
"We are actually training our engineers to be managers while the rest of the world trains them to be doers," Lutz said during a speech at the annual conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. GM announced last week that Lutz was stepping down as GM's North American chairman to focus full-time on global product development.
Lutz said Asian and European engineers are trained in drafting and can draw a new design on the spot when they run into problems. U.S. engineers often need to call in designers to do the drawing and may take weeks to figure out a solution, he said.
"It's somewhat bureaucratized, and it's a slow process," Lutz said. "It's because we don't have the bone-deep understanding of what's in there and the ability to draw and model without pulling in a bunch of specialists."
Lutz said fewer youngsters grow up working on cars and playing with Erector sets, which give them the intuition they can't get from computers or mathematical models.
"Today everything is prepackaged and ready to go," Lutz said. "Worse yet, a lot of the tinkering that used to be done on cars is now prohibited by federal emissions regulations, in that everything is tamperproof."
Lutz said GM has been trying to combat the problem with a three-year-old program that trains engineers, including some in the middle of their careers, to do their own drafting.
I will, of course, disagree on a few things - that's what I do best.
First and foremost, I don't think it's simply a matter of teaching CAD and drafting to engineers. A poor engineer who's good at CAD is simply going to make mistakes at a faster rate than a poor engineer who must rely on a designer. There's actually the risk of removing a critical check-and-balance. A good engineer with CAD skills can be extremely effective, but simply teaching someone how to move around a mouse is not an end-all-be-all solution.
I don't don't blame federal emission controls for the lack of tinkering with cars; in fact, those that work on their own cars nowdays get exposed to a wide variety of technology. The high-performance industry is stronger than ever, and the hot-rodders I know aren't scared off by EFI, electronically-controlled transmissions, ABS, and traction control. In fact, we're embracing it, and I've become a much more effective automotive engineer because of the grease under my nails (and the dirty fingerprints on my laptop). There's no excuse as to why engineers shouldn't be learning about cars by wrenching on their own projects. After all, if I can't figure out how to modify a new car, what reason to I have to think that I can design a better one?
And it doesn't necessarily have to be car-related, either. Us Americans are incredibly blessed with a lot of free time (although it's not always apparent), and that combined with our prosperity (also not always so apparent) brings about the opportunity for hobbies. Simply engaging in a technical hobby of some sort - whether it's home renovation, hot-rodding, or dorking around with an old computer in the basement - brings with it exposure to both sides of the problem-solving process (defining the problem, and developing and executing a solution). Whether it's rebuilding a carb on your garden tractor or remodeling an old kitchen, tinkering also engages both the brain and the body. Our physical connection to our work has been lost over the years, and I think that brings with it a loss of mental connection as well.
But otherwise, Lutz is right - we're not letting our engineers do engineering. By and large, our profession has been turned into cyber-paper-pushing, and it's harming this country's ability to turn out quality designs in a quick and efficient manner.
In the C&G thread, some folks lay blame on education. I'm don't think that's the problem. There's only so much that can be taught in four years, and there's better places to learn the nuts and bolts of automotive engineering than in a classroom. Nope, it's best-learned in an extracurricular setting like Formula SAE (to name only one of several hundred opportunities), or better yet on one's own project. Wanna really good way to learn good design fundamentals, project timing, and budgeting? Build your own creation with your own money, and then trust your life to it.
Other problems include an increasing emphasis on the program management process, with a corresponding decrease in interest in individual skill. Sounds kinda Communist, eh? And then there's the lack of career path for engineers - technical skill carries very little additional pay. The path up the ladder runs through management. And engineering careers unfortunately don't tend to run a full 40 years anymore - I think there's this unspoken understanding among management that engineers are "done" after 25-30 years. Either move up to management or find yourself in the unemployment line, wondering what you're going to do for the next 10-15 years until retirement.
Engineering: It's not a job or a career - it's a lifestyle.