For many auto engineers, their choice of profession is influenced by growing up in the midst of the industry in southeast Michigan.
But when Jack Thompson heard the call to be an auto engineer 38 years ago, he was in his native New Mexico, working for the Atomic Energy Commission. He had no qualms, though, over trading nuclear fission for internal combustion propulsion and a career with Chrysler.
Now Thompson, 63, is the director of computer-aided engineering and concept development activity for the Chrysler group in Auburn Hills, Mich. Next week he begins a one-year tenure as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Thompson moved to Michigan in 1965 and joined the SAE a year later. Since then he has served on several committees and was honored as an SAE fellow in 1998. He was interviewed about his plans for his year as president by Industry Editor Dale Jewett.
You are a longtime member of SAE. How has the organization evolved?
I think SAE has become very focused in a couple areas. One, which has been part of the organization from the beginning, is keeping members up to date with the latest technology. The world congress this year has more than 1,000 papers being presented to help people understand the advancements.
There are also other professional development opportunities such as seminars. More than 7,000 engineers received some training at our automotive headquarters in Troy, Mich., last year.
We also have Toptec sessions to address specific emerging technologies such as 42-volt systems or fuel cells, but given from the viewpoint of experts in the field.
All of this goes toward the development of engineers to be the best that they can be, which is a key role for SAE.
The second role is in the standards arena. Here we see the effect of many SAE standards on ground vehicles, aerospace and off-highway vehicles, in every arena of mobility.
The standards allow the industry to focus on what makes a competitive difference, and things that are not a competitive issue can be standardized.
We can get higher quality, lower costs and more durable parts with this type of best practice.
SAE is also involved in being a technical resource for regulatory agencies without a company bias.
It allows experts from the industry to come in without having an ax to grind. SAE tries to stay neutral.
What are your goals as SAE president?
There are three focus areas I want to concentrate on, in addition to some being carried over from last year.
The first is knowledge management - sometimes called information to knowledge. I've had some involvement within our company on that subject.
We have an engineering book of knowledge which tries to capture the best practices and lessons learned.
It tried to take the practical things that are not in a textbook and make them available to engineers.
So if you are in seat track engineering, it's a way to focus all information on the subject.
It will tell them things such as best practices and what happened in the last launch, who the best suppliers are, what quality issues are in the field. There is a huge amount of data on any subject.
SAE has a huge amount of data on mobility subjects. I want to try to refocus that on individual subjects. It will make our engineers more aware of a resource they haven't tapped before.
There's an awful lot of very good data out there. But we're inundated with information, and nobody has the time to search for everything. This is part of an effort to get the databases within SAE organized and focused so engineers don't have to do long searches.
What is your second focus?
Systems engineering. It's not a new idea, but we still sense within our membership that one of the toughest jobs an engineer has today is making trade-offs between competing requirements.
Say you have 15 systems in a vehicle, but the requirements for them are not totally congruent, so you get inconsistent end results.
We want to try and help the engineer have a systems engineering approach to make those trade-offs so that in the end the customer gets what he wants.
How do you decide between levels of ride and handling? Do I want a car that is very sporty with stiff bushings, or am I looking for softer ride? There are many complicated trade-offs in vehicle designs. The discipline of how you do that is an area of training for engineers.
What is your third focus?
Digital product development process, which is what I'm involved with here at DaimlerChrysler. In our competitive arena, you can't afford the cost and time of confirming everything with physical prototypes. The whole industry has moved to digital processes in areas such as crash analysis, so you know the part design comes close to meeting the target before ever committing to tooling.
This process has been under way for the last 20 years and I see the pace accelerating in the near future. But for engineers who have been out of school for 20 years, there is a need to come up to speed on how to work in a digital world, how to trust it. I think that's an area were SAE can provide a neutral, unbiased viewpoint.
Isn't this an area of competitive difference among automakers?
There are three suppliers of crash simulation software, and the major automakers use one of the three. We use software from Livermore Scientific Corp. in the United States and Europe and - with Mitsubishi - in Japan.
It's a uniform process. How we prepare the data, what we look at
from the output and get it fast enough to keep the designer from waiting - that is where it becomes proprietary.
What challenges will you face as SAE president?
Like all organizations, SAE has had an impact from the downturn in the economy. It has had to make some adjustments in how it delivers its products.
But the SAE staff is the best of any not-for-profit society that I'm aware of. They've done a marvelous job of restructuring themselves during economic downturns.
How big a priority is the SAE World Congress to you?
I think it is absolutely critical; it's our main showcase of what SAE is all about. It has a large attendance, both members and nonmembers. From SAE's perspective, it's one of the big opportunities we have to direct the attention of the transportation industry. Our supply base can showcase their products.
There are a large number of technical papers presented. It is a very efficient way for an engineer to get an update on the latest in the industry.
How critical is automaker attendance at the SAE World Congress?
I think if suppliers see our vice presidents walking through the exhibit area, they want to be there. It
should be an important part of the event. There's a renewed commitment this year. From our standpoint, it helps that Richard Schaum from DaimlerChrysler is the general chairman. But there has been industrywide support for his initiatives. There are plans for staff meetings of top management from all of the Big 3 to be at the SAE congress exhibit area. It's not strictly a Chrysler group initiative.
Should SAE be more of an advocate for the industry on high-technology issues, such as the use of diesels in light vehicles in the United States?
There's a technical side of that question and a political side. I think we should properly stay focused on the technical side of issues.
There are still unresolved issues, certainly projected regulatory requirements, that are a serious deterrent to the use of diesels in the United States. We need to continue addressing those issues.
I think SAE has a role to play in helping write standards and get the industry in the best position possible. We hurt ourselves the moment it becomes a lobbying activity. Other groups have that role to play.
Has there been much progress made in efforts to harmonize vehicle standards among North America, Europe and Asia?
It continues to be an area that needs work. The fact that regulators have made movement toward
collaboration on standards is encouraging to us, but there is more to be done in that area.
What are other challenges facing the industry in which SAE can play a role?
How we become more efficient as an industry certainly is critical in an economy that doesn't forgive inefficiency. SAE has a role to play in making engineers as capable as possible and using best practices in their work. Those are key issues.