A chance discussion about the need for the auto industry to explain its importance in the U.S. economy to policymakers in Washington and the public has led to a growing research project.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Center for Automotive Research presented the preliminary findings of a study on the contribution of automotive manufacturing to other sectors of the economy. They have not determined when final results will be presented.
Kathryn Clay, director of research at the alliance, told the Management Briefing Seminars on Tuesday that what was originally a four-month study will probably be extended six months. The study began with a discussion she had with Jay Baron, CAR's CEO, about the lack of understanding in Washington of the importance of the auto industry.
"As we delved into it, the richness of the story and the importance of it" persuaded them to extend their research, Clay said.
So far, the study has focused on the broad impact in three areas:
1. How tools and processes have spilled over to other industries. Take robotics. General Motors pioneered the use of robots in manufacturing in 1961, Clay said, and the auto industry remains the largest user of robotics. But as auto companies' use of robots grew, costs came down, allowing robotics to spread to other industries.
For example, the semiconductor industry uses robots for silicon wafer production, and the biotech field uses robots for the sampling and processing of genetic materials.
2. The reach and versatility of the automotive manufacturing base. For example, Clay cited the budding field of solar power. Imagine a solar array that uses mirrors to track the sun and concentrate its rays on solar panels. The assembly that tracks the sun may be built by auto suppliers with experience building gearboxes. The panels on the curved part of the array's disks use manufacturing techniques perfected to make curved windshields.
3. The auto industry's role in component innovations. A prime example, Clay said, is advanced battery technology. Technologies being developed today for electric vehicles eventually will be used to develop a smart grid capable of absorbing electricity from intermittent sources, such as solar or wind power.
Those three areas cover history and burgeoning technologies. By extending the study, researchers may be able to explore the auto industry's role in other areas, such as introducing lean manufacturing to America, the development of computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies, and improving quality in the field of microelectronics.
CAR researchers are gathering most of the data for the study through expert interviews and research into trade press records and academic journals. The funding comes from the alliance.