Karl Rink considered it a personal challenge.
And Rink doesn't take challenges lightly.
So when his former boss ordered Rink to stop all research on a new nitrous oxide airbag inflator, saying, 'The last thing we need is another science project,' the Autoliv Inc. engineer chose a different course. Armed with what he knew might be a solution to a troublesome technology, Rink marched back to his right-hand associate, Dave Green, on that summer day in 1996 and took the project underground.
'I wasn't really too upset, just more determined,' said Rink, recalling the episode. 'I went right back to my office, to Dave Green, ... and I just said, `Let's do this and gather the data, and let's just keep it to ourselves,' and I was confident that someday, somebody would come in and see the necessity of the inflator.'
The spark for what eventually became Autoliv's ASH-2 inflator - and a 2000 Automotive News PACE Award winner - came from Rink's graduate-level study on jet engines. The research team's conviction, however, was based on hard science. Early experiments, requiring only a $20 investment in a bottle of nitrous oxide, proved the device would properly inflate and be easier to assemble for the Ogden, Utah, operation, owned at the time by Morton International Inc.
But what Rink, 39, describes as a 'long, tortuous battle' still lay ahead. Months of secret testing, a management change and an eventual corporate merger were necessary before Rink's team was able to put the project on the path for commercial production.
In the end, the timing was fortunate. The inflator has been buoyed by the industry's growing demand for side-impact and head or curtain airbags - an application for which the nitrous oxide inflator, with its cooler gas, is particularly suited.
Since debuting in the mid-1990s, the global market for side-impact airbag inflators has grown to 20.5 million units, and volume is forecast to more than double to 42 million by 2003, according to Providata Automotive, an Ann Arbor, Mich., consulting firm. Curtain airbag inflators are expected to grow from 2.6 million units this year to 16.6 million by 2003. During the same period, side-impact module sales are forecast to jump from $456 million to $749 million, while curtain module sales soar from $86 million to $497 million.
'This new product is somewhat revolutionary in its design and its implementation in the market - good product, good timing and good marketing,' said Scott Upham, Providata Automotive president. 'This just cemented (Autoliv's) position as the premier side-impact airbag supplier.'
GM was first
When Autoliv began shopping the product to automakers in late 1998, General Motors quickly signed up, putting 400,000 units in its mid-luxury car line last year. Production soon will begin for 2001 Chrysler, Dodge and Saturn models, and future programs also are planned with Nissan, Renault, Saab, Toyota, BMW, Isuzu, Mercedes and Volvo.
All told, the Swedish safety systems supplier projects ASH-2 production to jump from 2.2 million units this year to 13 million in 2003, said Laurie Levonick, Autoliv product manager.
The inflator also outshines its predecessor in reliability, profitability and production ease.
'I can't say that (the first-generation inflator) wasn't profitable, but it wasn't one of our stellar performers in the bottom line,' Levonick said. 'It used up a lot of labor.'
The old product required 38 employees to churn out 200 units per hour, while the ASH-2 requires just five workers for the same output. The number of parts in the inflator was reduced from 18 to 10, while welds were whittled from 12 to five. Scrap on the product was less than 1 percent within the first six months of production.
With such payoff potential, the initial resistance to the project baffled engineers.
'About six of us were absolutely convinced, once we saw how well this worked, that we had to push it and introduce it,' Rink said.
So the headstrong Rink - born into a Minnesota family of engineers and married to the ballistician who worked on the ASH-2 - launched what he called a confidential design verification, secretly testing prototype inflators in simulated real-world conditions. Meanwhile, the director of engineering who initially squelched the project was replaced in the fall of 1996 by Thomas Hartman, now president of Autoliv Inflators.
OK - with strings
During Hartman's first week on the job, Rink pulled the new manager out of a meeting, showed him a cutaway of the ASH-2 prototype and asked for the OK to pursue its development. The engineer finally got his answer.
'He said, `I'm going to try to get you the resources you want, but bear in mind that at the end of three months, I want you to be able to tell me yes or no, it's going to work,'' Rink recalled.
Though Hartman sought results that might have taken another year of testing under normal circumstances, the research team was ready for the challenge. They scheduled sled tests - simulated collisions - at the company's suburban Detroit research center to prove the science. By early 1997, after three series of sled tests, the ASH-2 was on the path toward commercial production.
In the midst of all that, Autoliv acquired Morton's airbag operations, and a companywide technology assessment began. The ASH-2 competed with other research projects for survival, making Hartman's mandate to produce results all the more critical. Because the inflator employed a fundamentally different science - the chemical process of dissociation rather than combustion - more tumultuous times lay ahead as Rink and his team worked to convince colleagues of the product's potential.
But the data gathered during the stealth experiments and then the sled tests eventually won over corporate executives - and, soon after that, customers and the automotive engineering community.
Indeed, discovering the rough road the ASH-2 navigated on its way to market impressed the PACE Award judges who visited Autoliv's Ogden airbag inflator plant last October. Persistence over pouting is a key message to be taken from Autoliv's story, said Robert Chapman, a PACE judge and former manufacturing executive.
'They are just way the hell ahead,' Chapman said of Autoliv's position in the side-impact airbag inflator market. 'So the conclusion you come to is, if you know what the problem is and you have a pretty solid idea of how to get around it, even though management might not be receptive, push forward and continue to convince people that you have solid results, and this is a project with solid potential.'
Resistance to change is common, however, especially when it involves a switch to new technology. To drive innovation, companies must be willing to accept risk. But at the same time, winning approval for what may well be a blockbuster product shouldn't be easy.
'In any organization that is technologically intensive, there are usually five times as many projects that can be supported,' Chapman said. 'And these guys are always convinced that their widget is going to be a world beater.'
In Rink's case, that conviction was based in hard data and a firm grasp of market conditions. And though no great breakthrough for enhancing the culture of innovation necessarily came from the experience, the ASH-2's path uncovered several dos and don'ts of development.
Fostering a climate of freedom and flexibility are first steps. Challenging researchers to tackle tough problems and accepting their scientific evidence also is key.
'A good idea can come from anywhere in an organization,' said Rink, who likens finessing an engineering research department to his after-hours gig of coaching high school hockey. 'A lot of good ideas come from regular people in the company, the people who deal with problems they see every day.'
In retrospect, the ASH-2's early stumbling blocks may even have been helpful, Rink said. The obstacles provided extra motivation to prove the technology even while allowing the team to focus strictly on the science, unencumbered by deadlines and expectations.
And the experience provided Rink with valuable lessons he continues to apply - to himself at times, but also to help deal with the resistance to change inevitable in a corporate research environment. If those innovation principles are heeded, Rink's figurative underground testing lab may stay empty a while.
With the potential for the side-impact airbag market and the initial success of the ASH-2, at least one development project under way is likely to get management's green light. Rink and his team already have begun refining the nitrous oxide inflator and researching its potential for other applications.
'The next generation will be absolutely incredible,' the engineer said. 'We'll be able to make the inflator smaller, and we'll be able to take even more parts out of the inflator.'
With his track record, Rink is bound to convince someone.
AMy Wilson is an Automotive News staff reporter in Detroit