Manufacturing may be the less glamorous part of automotive engineering, but incoming SAE President Donald Ableson wants his organization to serve the needs of car builders better.
As a manufacturing specialist at General Motors, Ableson led the manufacturing engineering of two plastic classics, the original APV minivans and the Pontiac Fiero.
'I have a lot of experience in plastic cars,' he says.
Another fond memory is the Chevrolet Impala SS. Abelson helped create that hot-rod package for the Caprice in his current job as director of GM specialty vehicle activity.
Thirty people work under him. Their job is to create special-interest packages, such as pace car replicas and up-level trim-and-electronics jobs such as the Pontiac Montana Vision, which has luxury trim and special audio and video equipment. During his two-year tenure he has consolidated specialty vehicles into a single unit handling all five of GM's divisions with a common process for interfacing with suppliers.
Ableson, 61, is an avowed factory rat. He assumes his one-year term as SAE president at this year's convention with a six-point agenda that includes boosting programs for manufacturing engineers. Historically, manufacturing has not received the same attention as other disciplines within SAE. But the sponsoring of several manufacturing conferences in recent years has changed that.
Ableson's agenda also includes:
Expanding educational efforts to attract young students into math and science.
Continuing globalization efforts by establishing more overseas chapters.
Providing a neutral forum for government and industry to solve environmental problems.
Promoting the exchange of information with new technologies to help engineers work out common problems.
Upgrading SAE's other member services.
Ableson spoke by phone last week with Staff Reporter Aaron Robinson. Edited excerpts follow.
SAE has a long tradition of involvement with colleges and universities. Why is your emphasis on primary education?
If you do not get students interested in math and science in fourth or fifth grade, they're never going to have the background, by the time they get to high school, to become engineers or scientists.
SAE took a hard look at that about 10 years ago, and it showed that by 2000 we would be far short of the number we needed for industry. Out of that, SAE decided to try to do something to get more kids interested in education and, hopefully, end up in the engineering and scientific areas.
Have those predictions come true?
Yes, they have. You just have to look at the numbers, especially in graduate schools. We've really fallen off on the U.S. students that go to grad school, and there is definitely a shortage. It will be a big challenge for us to turn it around.
Why is SAE so late in boosting its manufacturing presence?
We talked about it for a number of years, and we kept trying to do something internally by forming committees. But we didn't really have the thrust to come up with a good manufacturing program until we started exploring the sponsorship of manufacturing conferences. Luckily, their organizers came to us and said, 'Would you like to jointly sponsor something?'
I think we've got a pretty firm start. We now have a strategy committee that's composed of a number of industry manufacturing executives.
We're utilizing them as a sounding board to see how we can make this manufacturing engineering worthwhile to the industry and to the members.
What stresses are mergers and global consolidation placing on the engineering community? How will SAE address them?
As auto firms and parts firms keep merging, they still have a need for standards around the world and conferences in which to discuss them. SAE is already a global organization.
One of our primary challenges is trying to keep people tied together as they move around. When a member moves to Europe or wherever, they want access to the same information and services as they had here in the United States. SAE is like an old friend to these people; we can go with them wherever they go.
What should be SAE's role in environmental debate?
SAE has shown it is a neutral party and therefore has proved it can work with many different positions to try to arrive at something that is best for mankind.
It can provide a forum for discussions of environmental problems, offering to set up standards or harmonize them among countries. We have the ability to put on informational programs on whatever area we need to bring out to the public or bring forward to industry.