AU adds minor for auto industry

Published: Jun 24, 2008 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Dawn Kent, dkent@bhamnews.com,

Source: Birmingham News

Auburn University has launched a program to train engineers for Alabama's automotive industry, the latest effort by state educators to prepare students for critical, high-value jobs in vehicle assembly plants.

The school is implementing an automotive manufacturing engineering minor, a course of study that teaches skills needed for upper- and mid-level management posts in factories such as those that Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai have built in the state.

Auburn's effort comes as Alabama is trying to add a fourth automaker - Volkswagen - to that lineup. But while the initiative could give the state an edge in recruiting new companies, it's squarely aimed at supporting existing ones.

As Alabama's automotive industry matures, it's incumbent upon the state to provide not only the people who can build the cars, but also those who can design and implement the processes that make assembly plants hum, said Steve Sewell, executive vice president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.

"We've demonstrated that we can provide the production work force that companies need to be successful, and we've demonstrated that we've got all of the other advantages to support an automotive-related company," he said. "Now companies are going to be looking for the mid-level managers, skilled positions and experienced personnel who can help them be competitive."

At Auburn, the new minor is part of a broader automotive industry focus, which could eventually include more engineering training on the graduate level, as well as additional research programs.

For John Evans, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at Auburn, the move is simply an extension of the university's land-grant mission.

Auburn is known for its extensive network of agricultural stations amid farmland throughout the state, but these days, automotive plants are springing up on such sites instead of crops, he said.

"We're sitting in the middle of the largest automotive expansion in years," Evans said, noting Hyundai's Montgomery assembly plant and a similar facility for Kia in west Georgia, both a short drive from Auburn's
campus.

Auburn already is involved in supporting the automotive industry. Its Center for Advanced Vehicle Electronics, or CAVE, provides research for a number of automotive companies, among others.

Industrial engineering students, both graduate and undergraduate, also work at assembly and supplier plants, helping coordinate lean manufacturing, quality control, safety and ergonomics programs that help the facilities run efficiently.

But, Evans said, there's a need to supply even more engineering capabilities to these companies.

The new 15-hour minor, approved last year, is geared toward students who are majoring in either mechanical or industrial engineering. It includes courses in vehicle technology, as well as factory floor control, lean manufacturing and other processes that improve efficiency.

The training should make Auburn students more marketable to automotive plants and spark a circle of prosperity that could make its way back to the university.

"We'll put more Auburn students in factories and hopefully make the plants more efficient, which will grow the state economy," Evans said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, engineers employed in the motor vehicle manufacturing industry earn in the range of $70,000 annually, while those on the management level take home yearly pay that tops six figures.

Across the state, schools are supporting the automotive industry, from a specialized curriculum that trains technicians at two-year colleges to additional training and research programs at universities.

For example, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a program trains primarily graduate students in the use of lightweight materials and related processes that reduce vehicle weight, helping improve performance parameters such as fuel economy.

The state now has a host of automotive training programs, but continued development of the talent base is crucial, said Ron Davis, president of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association and plant manager at ZF Lemforder's Tuscaloosa facility, which supplies axle assemblies to Mercedes.

"What's good today will not be good tomorrow," he said. "We need to keep getting better and stronger."