Viewpoints - Automotive Leaders Can't Play it Safe
By Jamie Price
Sandvik Coromant US
By all accounts, automotive production is on a strong upswing in the US. After a few years of putting off large capital expenditures, American consumers are now limping their older cars back to the dealership with a rekindled interest in getting a new one, just as the airlines are doing with their fleets.
Consider July car sales—Sales were up 20.9% at Honda, 17.3% at Toyota, 16.3% at GM, 11.3% at Ford, 11.1% at Chrysler, and 10.9% at Nissan.
The boom in the automotive sector stands to make a major positive impact on the job market, too. After years of restructurings, American automakers are operating at near maximum capacity. So in order to meet growing demand, they will have to explore expanding their workforces. And already, the pace of job growth in the automotive industry is now twice that of the general US economy, according to Business Week.
I’ve visited many automotive customers in the last couple of months, and the outlook is positive, especially in consumer automobiles. With demand on the rise, new programs for light vehicles are growing rapidly. All indicators are anticipating that trend to continue, too.
Suppliers in both the US and Canada have a strong backlog of work, and with General Motors’ recent heavy investments in Mexico, North American car markets are looking promising.
The automotive industry is naturally one of Sandvik Coromant’s most important segments, so I was excited to see that Manufacturing Engineering was devoting so much attention to it in this issue. The timing couldn’t be better to talk about ways to renew and hone metalworking’s collective focus on the segment. We are at the base of a steep upward slope in work and demand, which is great news, but inevitable challenges also await.
One blessing for car manufacturers is that Americans are now willing to spend more than $30,000, on average, for a new car, according to the consumer automotive website Edmunds.com. While consumers are willing to spend more, they are also looking for the quality and innovation payoff that comes with the price tag.
And with the advent of the information age, people are more informed than ever about their cars. They are able to do extensive research and get exactly what they want—instead of what happens to be available on nearest car sales lot.
Consumers also expect their cars to be fully integrated extensions of their digital selves. New cars and trucks are expected to integrate seamlessly with smart phones and assist in everything from address books, navigation, music selection, and fuel management. To some, these high-end conveniences might be seem like cosmetic window dressing, but the sea change in consumer expectations is likely to reverberate throughout manufacturing for years to come.
But the biggest changes on the horizon, especially for manufacturers, have to do with fuel economy. A fluctuating mix of altruistic sentiments, financial self-interest and governmental/legislative mandates are asking cars to become greener both in their energy consumption and in their emissions output.
The slow, but certain march toward hybrid and other fuel technologies has gained some more traction. But lighter materials, such as composites, are making major inroads. They stand to improve weight-to-power ratios, and bolster strength and rigidity in the frame, all the while maximizing fuel efficiency.
The real message that we can take from all of these co-evolving and converging trends in the automotive industry is that we are in a time of great change, and great opportunity.
The same old technology will not satisfy the consumer. At least in the US, engines and transmission have to evolve to get more lean and green. For automotive manufacturers to get there, innovation in machining current and future components is essential.
An absolute fearlessness has to be a part of the industry attitude. We must approach machining processes with creative thinking and dare to take risks. I am convinced the most creative manufacturers will also end up being the leaders. ME
This article was first published in the September 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.