Lutz: U.S. engineering education still 'too management focused'

  • 15-Apr-2013 12:07 EDT
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In his 50-year career at GM, Ford, Chrysler, and BMW, Bob Lutz found the best engineers to be those with the greatest hands-on knowledge and technical experience. He believes that aspect of engineering is "underestimated."

Championing product excellence and questioning the status quo are hallmarks of Bob Lutz’s 50-year career in the auto industry. The outspoken former General Motors Vice Chairman of Product Development, though officially “retired,” continues as an adviser and board member for various OEMs and technology suppliers. He will share insights valuable to engineers (and perhaps spark controversy) in a keynote address at the SAE 2013 World Congress on April 18 (9 a.m. at the AVL Technology Leadership Center in Detroit’s Cobo Hall).

When Lutz last keynoted at the SAE Congress, in 2005, he challenged trends within engineering education. Lutz told the audience that U.S. engineering-school graduates lacked the hands-on experience that used to be commonplace—direct experience with tools, processes, and thinking that would give rookie engineers a "bone-deep" understanding of the products they develop.

He said the situation had arisen from a lack of engineering students getting their hands dirty in fixing and tuning cars, and playing with machinery in general, in their youth—in part a reality, he acknowledged, of modern vehicles having fewer systems that can be serviced by amateurs today.

Compared to their European counterparts, particularly those in Germany, American engineering schools were “training engineers to be managers,” Lutz said in 2005, while “the rest of the world trains them to be doers." He noted that GM had launched a program to ensure every engineer received CAD training to bolster his or her knowledge of the “bones” of product creation.

A few days before his 2013 SAE keynote address, AEI asked Lutz to revisit his previous theme. His answers to the following questions may be a hint of what he’ll deliver April 18:

Some called your 2005 SAE Congress speech “Lutz’s Engineering Manifesto.” In that keynote you observed that trends in U.S. engineering education had caused American engineers’ hands-on mechanical aptitude and tactical problem-solving skills to wane compared with engineers in Europe. Had your view of this changed by the time you left GM as product development chief [in 2010]? If so, what changed?

I still believe U.S. engineering education is too management focused and shortchanges creativity and problem-solving skills. The hands-on aspect of engineering tends to be underestimated, but that's where I've found the best engineers during my career.

What is the next set of challenges facing global product development across the auto industry—and how should engineers prepare themselves to meet them?

The coming decade will be full of marvelous challenges: The quest for fuel efficiency will drive use of new technologies and new materials; solutions will need to be found to mitigate driver distraction while cars become ever more interactive and connected. And, it's no longer just one propulsion system, like in the old days. The number and variety of questions to be answered by engineers has never been greater.

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