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Higher Education Meets Manufacturing

A challenge and an opportunity: Stronger research and development ties between industry and academia

Photo courtesy of Bharat Balasubramanian

From Bharat Balasubramanian’s perspective, the Southeast must be more than a place for efficient, low-cost manufacturers of high-quality vehicles. To ensure long-term success, the region needs world-class engineers doing research and development work at the plant level.

Developing such engineers is a major goal for Balasubramanian, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama and executive director of UA’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Technology.  And, for him, it starts with stronger university-industry ties.

Says Balasubramanian: “You can’t just sit back and say, ‘We’re a pure manufacturing facility’ because if you take that position, people will eventually ask, ‘Where is the next cheapest place? Is it Mexico? Perhaps China? Vietnam? India?’ And that’s a risk we (the Southeast auto industry) cannot take.

“My point is if you don’t offer some value-added proposition, we are not going to survive in the long-term.  ‘Value-added’ to me is innovation and problem-solving capabilities through university-industry partnerships. It’s better (engineering) graduates, whether undergraduate or graduate level. It’s everything to strengthen the ecosystem of the auto industry here.”

Balasubramanian worked 38 years for the Mercedes-Benz brand in Stuttgart, Germany, retiring in 2012 as Daimler AG’s group vice president of research and advanced engineering. During his time in Stuttgart, he managed more than 2,000 engineers in Germany and elsewhere and was involved in every aspect of the company’s research, from autonomous technology to suspension systems to, well, you name it.

After retiring at Daimler, existing relationships with UA and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) near Tuscaloosa led to his accepting a faculty position at the university. In addition to teaching, Balasubramanian is committed to a goal of building stronger ties between UA and MBUSI and its suppliers, which he hopes will lead to the development of “wunderkind” American engineers doing research and development work for the company or other Southeastern auto companies.

The time is ripe for such a scenario. A report by the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR) says research and development functions at auto makers’ European and Asian headquarters are being strained.  That, in turn, is creating expectations for local plants to handle more research and development and engineering issues.

“The market in China is exploding, and most of Daimler’s engineers are focused on helping Chinese engineers get their products out in time,” Balasubramanian says. “So, American plants and (Daimler’s) plants in the rest of the world are always second in line. Number one is always China.

“A second trend we’re seeing is that companies like Mercedes-Benz are saying that they can’t afford to send so many (German engineers) to China, India and other places. But they’re sending a lot of their engineers to China because of language issues and the level of engineering knowledge there.

“So, they expect the U.S. plants to take care of themselves. This is a challenge, but you can do it if you have extremely smart — not average — graduates and undergraduates working for the automotive companies.”

A big part of the challenge is that the automotive plants in the Southeast, at least in Alabama, currently have a short-term outlook. They do great production and manufacturing, but they are not yet interested in research and development on-site. 

“What I see is that they (the plants) are only concerned about immediate problems of the next few days or months,” says Balasubramanian, who wants to change that window.

“Developing world-class engineers at the local level to provide research and marketing input is exactly my target,” he says. “To work closer with MBUSI. The goal is to make UA engineering graduates just as savvy and knowledgeable as engineers in Germany, and to make them truly multicultural.”

Another challenge that Balasubramanian is working to change is that the top talent in the Southeast isn’t flocking to the auto industry.  “If you go to Germany and ask engineering students where they would like to work, rest assured that BMW and Mercedes-Benz will be in the top five,” Balasubramanian says.

“But if you ask the same question in the U.S., the automotive industry will be priority 10 to 20. If all the top (American) graduates are going to Silicon Valley or becoming doctors or something else, the auto industry is only going to get the second and third tiers of the best candidates.”

Balasubramanian is complimentary of the progress the Southeast auto industry has made with community colleges, particularly in Alabama, to develop skilled workers. But he sees a “general disconnect” between four-year universities and the region’s auto industry. 

He says that most of the university-industry collaborative efforts for research and development are in the early stages and have yet to prove themselves. That is especially true if contrasted with Germany, where ties between universities and industry are traditionally much stronger.

“I would say we (universities and industry) are weak in our cooperation in the Southeast,” Balasubramanian says. “Industry here has not yet determined how to work with academia to improve their level of knowledge with respect to their product. And academia, because it is very academic, is not tuned in to doing applied research and offering solutions within a very demanding time frame to industry so they can resolve their problems.

“This is something I’m trying to address and, to be frank, I’ve not been very successful. As I said, there is a general disconnect between the universities and industry. But if I stay long enough, one day I will be able to get it along and under way.”

A German citizen since 1988, Balasubramanian was born and raised in India. He went to Germany in his early 20s and attained both a master’s and doctorate degree at the University of Karlsruhe, all while working for Daimler. Close industry-university ties were a way of life in Germany and serve as a model for Balasubramanian’s efforts at UA.

Part of his education in Germany included courses taught by leading executives and engineers from the auto industry.  “I was taught car body engineering by the Daimler Benz CEO,” he says. “I thought that was incredible.  You cannot imagine a GM or Ford CEO going every week to some university and teaching automotive-related subjects. This was done in Germany.”

German industry also funds a higher percentage of university research, and there is closer collaboration on projects that impact the auto companies’ bottom line.  Also, the funding and collaboration are done on shorter-term projects that carry a sense of real-world urgency. That, in turn, fosters motivation and more often generates results that benefit both industry and the universities, Balasubramanian says.

There also is a level of pride among German automotive engineers — generally regarded as the best researchers and designers in the auto world — that Balasubramanian would eventually like to see in the Southeast.

To that end, a major part of his work at Alabama involves a rigorous student exchange program he established in 2013. The program considers about a hundred incoming freshmen each year and accepts about 20. It is open only to National Merit or UA Presidents Scholars, and those accepted typically have a 4.0 GPA and ACT scores of 32 or higher.

Students in the program are required to learn German in parallel with engineering courses and spend their junior year studying in Germany and working there for Mercedes-Benz or one of its suppliers. The idea is to develop top-notch engineers who can work for MBUSI or German multi-nationals after graduating from Alabama. 

One UA student is currently in Germany as part of the program, a second is scheduled to go there next year followed by 14 in the fall of 2017. “My goal is to make University of Alabama engineering graduates just as knowledgeable and savvy as engineers in Germany,” Balasubramanian says. “And, number two, make them truly multicultural — to speak German, to understand German and be able to translate it back to the American word.”

Such goals might sound lofty in the laid-back American South, so are they possible to achieve? “Yes, if you have a receptive audience in industry,” Balasubramanian says.

Aside from the standard rigors of developing engineers, there are other stones in the road. Six of Balasubramanian’s top students, for example, were hired by General Motors in one fell swoop and now work in the Detroit area. 

“They were honor college students,” he says. “In one shot, GM recruited them, so they are all gone to the northern part of the country. It’s a free country, and that’s their right. But I had much rather see them go into the Alabama auto industry or the Southeastern auto industry. But as long as they’re in the auto industry, that’s OK.”

Balasubramanian has shown that he is quick to acknowledge negatives as well as positives in this work. He is doing what he can, but he knows he cannot go it alone.

“One thing I try to get across to my industry colleagues here is ‘Don’t give us the challenges of mankind that you have not been able to solve because the university will not be able to solve them, either. What you need to do is identify problems that you have an interest in and that have sufficient scientific merit for faculty to research,’”, he says. “Almost every engineer in Germany knows how to play that game. It benefits both industry and the university.

One Man’s Long Ride with Mercedes-Benz and Engineering

Bharat Balasubramanian’s love of engineering and Mercedes-Benz began long before his current work at the University of Alabama.

“My father was one of the few engineers in India who liked working with his hands,” the 65-year-old Balasubramanian recalls. “He could repair almost everything — toasters, electric motors, radios. He was truly an electro-mechanical, mechatronics person, and I inherited a lot of his interests.”

As a boy, Balasubramanian became obsessed with transportation. “Anything that moved,” he says, “trains, airplanes and cars.” By age 13, he was devouring auto industry magazines. “These were technical magazines, Car and Driver, Road and Track,” he says. “They were British and American magazines and they were all in high praise of Mercedes-Benz.

“Mercedes-Benz then was probably the only premium luxury brand, and (these magazines) praised the safety, comfort, durability and power train technology, everything you value today in Mercedes. I got keenly interested in Mercedes-Benz, and at that time wished to go to Germany and work with the best of the R&D engineers at Mercedes-Benz.”

He pursued studies along those lines and at age 18 was one of 1,500 students accepted out of 75,000 who applied to the Indian Institute of Technology. “It was a grueling entrance exam over two days,” he says.

After attaining a high rank in the university’s honors program in 1974, he was accepted for an internship at Mercedes-Benz in Germany and continued his education there at the University of Karlsruhe. “In 1977, I got the prize for the best engineering GPA,” he says. “History has shown I had the highest GPA in the past 150 years at the University of Karlsruhe in the College of Engineering. It was a big honor. I jokingly tell people that I had a higher GPA than Mr. Benz, who graduated from Karlsruhe in 1864.”

Balasubramanian became a German citizen along the way and retired at age 61 as Daimler’s top research and development executive. “The company liked for you to retire at 60,” he says. “At that time, I had a lot of energy and didn’t want to stop working. In the German system, after retirement they expect you put up your feet, travel about, do gardening and housework and generally enjoy yourself. But you don’t come back into the job market.”

Balasubramanian had traveled to Alabama’s Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant around 2010 and had met some of the faculty at Alabama then. He considered other options for work when he retired, but contacts he had made in Alabama led to his being a faculty member at UA.

“I want young American automotive engineers to be as innovative and talented as their German counterparts,” he says. “I have a high level of energy and passion, so I will probably make that happen.”

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