Pivot Point: GM creates an r&d powerhouse

Where GM's bright ideas are born and nurtured

From a barn in Ohio, GM's r&d operations grew into a world-renowned incubator for innovation

A scientist doing experiments on distillation at the GM Tech Center in 1948 checks his test tubes.
The General Motors research and development organization grew from humble beginnings in a Dayton, Ohio, barn into one of the world's foremost scientific centers.

From Charles Kettering's small laboratory, established in 1909, to the Dayton Research Laboratories, formed in 1916, to GM's first Detroit-based labs, set up in 1925, to facilities constructed in the 1950s at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Mich., r&d has been the company's lifeblood for nearly a century.

Kettering's ignition system and electric starter set high standards for achievement before he joined GM to organize the company's first r&d department.

After it was established in June 1920, GM's r&d operation became a wellspring of advancements. In its first decade, r&d's major milestones included improved gasoline, chrome plating for body trim, quick-drying paint and GM's first four-wheel brakes.

In the teeth of the Depression, the focus shifted to developing diesel engines for wide use, quieter hydraulic valve lifters, higher-strength materials and softer-riding suspension systems. Refrigerants that led to home and car air conditioning were developed in GM r&d labs.

During World War II, GM researchers concentrated first on aircraft and marine-related projects before developing new tools and techniques for the coming age of the high-compression engine.

Some of the innovations developed by GM Research
• Leaded gasoline
• Nitrocellulose lacquer paint
• Harmonic engine balancer
• Acoustically tuned intake and exhaust systems
• Crankcase ventilator
• Fixed-focus headlamp
• Chrome-plated trim
• Cooling system thermostat
• Freon refrigeration
• 2-cycle diesel engine
• Hydraulic valve lash adjuster
• Precision engine bearings
• Winter-grade lubricating oil
• High-compression engine
• Aluminum-coated engine valves
• Nickel-based metal alloys
• Sonigage ultrasonic metal inspection instrument
• Mechanical heart apparatus
• Positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) valve
• Automatic wheel and crankshaft balancing machines
• Acrylic-lacquer paint
• Computer-augmented graphic design
• Math-based body surface analysis
• Biomechanical injury thresholds
• Hydrodynamic oil seals
• Electrolytic deposition polymer paint
• Dragfoiler truck air deflector
• Exhaust-gas recirculation system
• Energy-absorbing steering column
• Simulated impact testing
• Liquid crystal information display
• Water-based paint
• Catalytic converter
• Plastic-body solder
• Computerized structural analysis
• Zirconia exhaust-gas sensor
• Computerized vision
• High-strength, low-alloy steel
• Low-viscosity, low-friction lubricating oil
• Anti-theft ignition key
• Automated integrated-circuit design

Nonautomotive triumphs

Postwar prosperity broadened GM's r&d focus. In the 1950s, GM scientists created the first successful mechanical heart and equipment for sterilizing blood and vaccines. They identified the causes of smog and suggested potential solutions. Cooperation with IBM yielded the first viable computer operating system.

In the 1960s, GM r&d began experimenting with electric, hybrid-electric and fuel cell propulsion systems. To expedite car design, the first mathematical models and computer-aided tools were developed.

Statistics on human injury tolerance were compiled by biomechanics researchers, and dummies used for crash testing were improved greatly as a result. Exhaust-gas recirculation systems were devised to curb emissions of nitrogen oxide.

Battery and hybrid-electric research intensified in the 1970s along with computer simulations of crashes and engine performance. Liquid crystal displays, chrome-plated plastics and the first three-way catalytic converters containing platinum, palladium and rhodium were developed.

New finite-element analysis tools were designed to assess the strength and stiffness of complex vehicle structures. Learning how to form high-strength, low-alloy steels facilitated their use to save weight in car bodies.

GM Technical Center workers pour molten aluminum into a mold in 1946.

Turning toward electrics

A 1980s robotic system enabled GM to machine clay models directly from mathematical design data. Researchers devised fuel-saving lubricants and reformulated engine coolant for better corrosion resistance. The first oil change indicators and anti-theft systems graduated from research to production.

During the 1990s, GM r&d made significant strides with electric cars and fuel cells. Alternative energy systems such as flywheels, ultracapacitors and gas turbines were studied. Electronic stability systems, variable suspension dampers and the OnStar safety and security service reached fruition.

The auto industry's first virtual design environment came of age. GM r&d's reach stretched to other continents.

In 1998, after nearly two decades as a research staff member, Larry Burns was appointed to head the organization as a GM vice president responsible for both r&d and strategic planning. Burns' stated mission is the reinvention of the automobile with the emphasis on sustainable mobility at a price people can afford.

That initiative depends on advancements in four key areas: propulsion systems, electronics, telematics and car-building materials.

Looking way out

Since 2000, r&d achievements include by-wire vehicle controls, wheel-mounted electric drive motors, higher-density fuel cell stacks and the E-Flex electric drive system scheduled for 2010 production in the Chevrolet Volt.

Efforts are under way to move lithium ion battery systems out of the lab and onto the highway, and flex-fuel engines and Two-Mode hybrid systems have achieved production status.

GM r&d's road to the future has not always been smooth. Among major potholes: Wankel engines, first-generation car diesels and the continuously variable transmission, first installed in Saturns and Opels. GM's stated intention of selling 1 million fuel cell vehicles by 2010 also will prove to be wildly optimistic.

Today's r&d organization consists of seven laboratories and eight science centers around the globe. GM has collaborative agreements in more than a dozen countries, plus working relationships with government, supplier and private research staffs — such as one recently signed with Coskata, a Warrenville, Ill., producer of ethanol made from wood chips and other waste products.

Six U.S. and three foreign universities are assisting GM in its study of engines, materials and information technology.

Defining r&d's role as GM's solutions provider, Burns said, "As the automobile's DNA continues to change, GM intends to deliver a full range of vehicles that are fun to drive, safe, great-looking and, ultimately, both emissions- and petroleum-free.''

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