Teamwork is the only path for R&D efforts

  • 19-Apr-2010 04:20 EDT

“We’ve got a significant amount to be invested,” TARDEC’s Paul Skalny said Wednesday at an SAE 2010 World Congress panel session in Detroit.

The complexity of modern vehicles and the high cost of research are putting an increased focus on collaboration, particularly given the cash shortage of most transportation companies. Joining existing research teams is a good way for companies to expand their knowledge in new areas without incurring high risks.

No one company can have all the knowledge needed to develop materials, electronics, and energy sources required for next generations, said participants of the “Technology Sharing in the Era of Ecollaboration” panel session Wednesday at the SAE 2010 World Congress in Detroit. Panelists from the auto, off-highway, and aerospace industries agreed that the key to success will be to expand their core competencies by finding researchers who have established a knowledge base in fields that are critical for next-generation products.

There’s no shortage of research, but it’s scattered around the globe at many facilities. Kevin Bruch, Applied Technology Development Manager at Caterpillar Inc., noted that global R&D expenditures are estimated at $1 trillion. “Cat spent $1.7 billion on R&D in 2008. That’s a small percentage of worldwide spending. There’s a whole lot of research to be tapped out there.”

To glean some of that knowledge, Cat has formed what it calls a virtual organization. Its engineers join researchers at a number of universities, collaborating with specialists in technologies that will benefit the company.

Universities have become a gathering point for researchers, providing independent operations where industry teams can come together to pool resources and share in work with the support of collegiate teams. Colleges are no longer considered ivory towers but places where corporate funding can augment publicly funded research programs that benefit all parties.

“There were challenges years ago that made it difficult to do research with universities; they were very theoretical,” said Peter Hoffman, Director of Global Research & Development Strategy for The Boeing Co. “That’s changed. We’re successfully working with universities in R&D consortia that combine the universities, OEMs, and supply chain participants.”

Funding is obviously a key concern for R&D projects, since their potential payoff is often questioned by those who hold the purse strings. In this period of increased government spending, military programs are getting more interest and funding.

SAE International President Andrew Brown, who moderated the session, heightened interest in possible collaboration with the U.S. Army’s TARDEC operation by noting that the latter has $4.5 billion. TARDEC manages many military programs, pushing military mobility technologies by partnering with industry.

“We’re in business to connect with industry,” said Paul F. Skalny, Director of TARDEC’s National Automotive Center. “Over a short period of time, we’ve got a significant amount to be invested to see how to build energy-independent bases.”

Providing power for military equipment underscores the need for collaboration. Keeping tanks and other gear running has long been a problem. Researchers from many different fields are now figuring out how they can help the military move away from petroleum.

“We have an insatiable demand for power on the battlefield,” Skalny said. “We’re looking at wind farms and solar. There’s a tremendous need for collaboration so we can pull everything together.”

While many joint programs focus on development, collaborations can also help move companies from product development to high-volume production. Lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems sprang from a research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it’s continuing to work with partners as it ramps up production.

“We’re expecting an 18 times increase in production from 2009 to 2012. With that kind of growth, it’s absolutely imperative that we collaborate with others,” said Mujeeb Ijaz, Director of Engineering for A123 Systems Auto Solutions Group.

Panel members also noted that companies need to search globally, since different regions have very specific skill sets. For example, Russia has a lot of knowledge in titanium, and the Dutch are “the world’s best at applying composite technology to aircraft,” Hoffman said. Bruch added that Australians have extensive efforts in mining R&D.

Panelists agreed that it’s possible for competitors to be involved in collaborative programs. “A joint venture is one way to do it, but it’s difficult,” said James E. (Ted) Robertson, CTO of Magna International Inc. Boeing’s Hoffman suggested that precompetitive agreements can work if the parties clearly define the mechanisms for holding intellectual property rights.

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