Focus on the Workforce: California Leads the Way
Pamela Hurt Strategic Alliances; Workforce
Development Program Manager
Society of Manufacturing Engineers
For better or worse, California is a place known for new ideas. The list of items is diverse, from hot rods, Frisbees, and surfboards to skateboards, the microchip in Silicon Valley, and health food. "Would you like sprouts on that tofu sandwich?" California has long been the incubator for products and trends that have changed the way we live, work, and play.
Recently, another new idea has come alive in San Diego County, where a company called Aptera is taking a new approach to personal transportation aimed at providing the most efficient mode of travel the world has ever seen. Their first product is the 2e, a two-seat (the "2"), all-electric (the "e") three-wheeled vehicle that will get upwards of 200 miles per gallon equivalent when it starts hitting California streets in late 2011.
The Aptera 2e has a look that's straight out of the Jetsons, a futuristic, low-slung, aerodynamic design producing a drag coefficient less than that of Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. Aptera's emphasis on aerodynamics and low weight, combined with a focus on strength and safety, is creating streamlined vehicles that will achieve more than twice the fuel efficiency of any car on the road today.
What truly makes Aptera unique is the company's concentration on efficiency in all aspects of its work. It's a spotlight the company proudly shines on the vehicle's design, and on the way its vehicles are built. Currently manufacturing is done in a warehouse in Vista, although Aptera has recently announced a move to a new, 200,000 ft2 (18,580 m2) manufacturing facility in nearby Oceanside.
In its quest for efficiency, Aptera—founded in 2006—has turned to some of the automotive industry's more established players, such as BorgWarner (transaxles), Hi-Lex (power windows), and Michelin (tires), to provide components for 2e. But Aptera has also enlisted a number of new technology companies, including A123 (batteries), Wind River (software), Remy Electric Motors, VBoxUSA (data acquisition) and NRG Energy, which is developing solutions for consumers to adopt and live with electric vehicles.
The person charged with testing, validating and setting up production for composite components in the production of the ultra-efficient 2e is Krista Anderson, an engaging 20-something engineer who looks like she'd be more comfortable on a ski slope than manufacturing electric vehicles.
"I taught skiing to 3–6 year olds for seven years at Tahoe Donner," says Anderson, referring to the ski resort in her hometown of Truckee, CA, near Lake Tahoe. "I also golfed a lot; I started playing when I was seven years old, and I played and coach soccer."
Her athletic background would benefit Anderson—and Aptera—in later years, but more on that in a moment.
Anderson attended college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA, where she studied materials engineering and minored in Spanish. While at Cal Poly, she honed her leadership skills and had the opportunity to study abroad in Spain at the University of Valladolid. She was a freshman orientation leader for two years and was president of Alpha Sigma Mu, the materials engineering student honor society, before being named as one of the university's Outstanding Woman in Engineering and Technology by the Society of Women Engineers, an honor for which she was nominated by her professors. She was eventually nominated as an outstanding graduating senior, in part due to her community outreach, taking engineering to local elementary schools, where she made ice cream with liquid nitrogen, among other fun projects.
After graduating, she began seeking a post in the sports industry to coincide with her passion for athletics, ultimately finding the perfect fit in Southern California with Callaway Golf and their Manufacturing Leadership Program. Her new position took her through various engineering roles at Callaway, working in research and development, manufacturing engineering, process engineering, and manufacturing supervision. The company also started Anderson on her path to becoming a six-sigma black belt, something she hopes to complete with Aptera and the launch of the 2e.
At Callaway, Anderson worked on process development for putters, theory of constraints implementation to improve manufacturing productivity, and on surface prep for composite drivers. This experience led her down the process engineering path, which, combined with her interest in clean technology, shepherded her directly to the all-electric Aptera—literally down the road, as Aptera and Callaway are just a few miles apart in northern San Diego County.
Anderson describes her work at Aptera as "taking a process and using six-sigma skills to optimize it by adjusting and optimizing all variables that affect the performance. There will always be process development work as we strive to be more efficient. That will be my role for a while."
Her current duties as Aptera's Senior Process Engineer in Composites are focused on optimizing the composite material that constitutes the body of the 2e, and designing materials to optimize the vehicle's strength, weight, and surface finish. In other words, Anderson is working to make the 2e stronger and lighter while keeping its automotive cosmetics intact by making it easier to finish.
"I'll continue to focus on strength and weight, evaluating new materials, to take weight out of the vehicle," she says. "My focus on maximizing the 2e's strength while minimizing weight has a large impact on the vehicle's efficiency."
One way she has done this is by changing the materials used in the first 2e prototypes, which started with a vinylester brought to Aptera by company co-founder Chris Anthony. Vinylesters tend to shrink during application, which leads to a wavy surface, making the vehicle more difficult to finish and less desirable to consumers. Anderson moved Aptera to an epoxy resin that is better for finishing—because its shrink is minimal in comparison to vinylesters—but also improves the body's strength and weight.
Anderson's responsibilities also include getting a final surface finish on the vehicle. "We want to get away from traditional auto paint," says Anderson. "It's not the most environmentally friendly process that exists. Aptera has a neat opportunity to finish vehicles differently than they have historically been finished in the automotive industry. We have not made that huge capital investment in a traditional paint line, and are thus able to explore new, high-tech, nontraditional finishing options."
"One neat thing about finishing the first Apteras is that they will all be white. The white color minimizes how hot the passenger cabin gets. This allows us to use less energy to manage the cabin temperature, increasing the vehicle's efficiency. Plus, it's a statement. Apples [computers] made a statement, and we hope the 2e will, too."
"One of the challenges working with structural composite materials in the automotive industry is financial. We're somewhere between a low-budget, low-tech material used in the marine industry, and a high-cost, high-budget material used in the aerospace industry. Our structural performance requirements fall toward the aerospace end. And our cost targets fall towards the lower end of the spectrum, as the vehicles need to be produced at a cost that is reasonable for end consumers. We also have to be able to produce our composite panels at a speed that is capable of supporting our projected production targets.
"We're really in undeveloped territory with the combination of our structural needs, our cost targets, and our volumes—aerospace has large budgets for high-performance materials and typically produces in low volumes, while the marine industry typically tends to go for low-cost materials, isn't as focused on performance, and has mid-range volumes. The challenge is getting high performance out of our materials while keeping costs reasonable and meeting our volume requirements."
So, what's next for Anderson? When she's not consumed with composite material testing, optimization, and continuous improvement efforts, she will be working in collaboration with the composite manufacturing team at Energetx Composites (Holland, MI) to make Aptera's composite manufacturing process more efficient, prior to the launch of the 2e next year. And of course, Anderson will continue to play outdoors, golfing, skiing, and the like, as that's what led her down this path in the first place.
This article was first published in the June 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.