The first introduction we had to the Detroit Metropolitan Area was arriving in the Pink Palace, an interesting hotel with a ’60’s vibe. At 7:45, we went to Al Ameer, a Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn. Our eyes were too big for our stomachs, however, and we left some a few kabobs and some shawarma on the plate. After this, we visited Shatila’s to grab some pastries to give as gifts for the people we were visiting.
We left for the Ford Rouge tour around 9 AM, and upon arrival, we saw several videos about Ford’s history and the construction of the best-selling vehicle in America, the Ford F-150. The factory itself had a large observation area several stories above the ground, where we could see dozens of workers in rows several yards apart doing one task each to construct the F-150s. These unfinished vehicles were moving on a conveyor belt at 3 miles per hour in a constant flow. At the back of the observation area, we saw finished vehicles undergoing final repairs or heading to the final lot.
At the Henry Ford Museum, we saw many important historical items. They had many of the presidential vehicles and other vehicles owned by important people in the section immediately to the right of the entrance. In the middle of the museum, we viewed several interactive displays about the Civil War era and looked at the chair Abraham Lincoln was shot in, and on the left of this, we saw manufacturing equipment and other innovations that made America into a true economic power.
After driving around northern Detroit for a while, we stopped to look at the Heidelberg Project. This block near downtown Detroit in a historically segregated black neighborhood attracts many young urban professionals that are interested in its message of progressive thinking and city reclamation. The art pieces are mainly sculptures composed of “trash” or old items left behind in abandoned houses or discarded on the block. My favorite pieces here were the walls of shoes.
The class visited Federal Mogul in the morning to see the innovation center and testing areas for the spark plugs and pistons the company makes. We walked through several different laboratories where independent technicians and company employees alike studied the physics of their products. We then looked at the engine testing labs where companies sent their engines to Federal Mogul for spark plug and piston testing. The last big thing we saw was the heavily patented, new spark plug design meant to increase fuel efficiency and become the latest spark plug innovation on the market.
Greg McGuire talked to us later that morning at Mcity, a 32-acre, realistic car testing facility next to the main University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) building. He told us that 2,000 autonomous vehicles are being tested on several sensor-laden streets in Ann Arbor, with plans to increase this number to 9,000 soon. We then hopped in one of the autonomous vehicles on site to test its performance, but after several phone calls and re-coding attempts, Greg drove us around using an Xbox controller instead.
Bruce Belzowski gave us a long presentation about the state of the automotive industry when we visited UMTRI. He mentioned the globalization of the automotive industry and emerging manufacturers in China. He also highlighted the decreasing margins on new cars and increase in the money spent on research coupled with the skepticism of some people about autonomous vehicles and other new technologies. In his concluding remarks, he said autonomous vehicles will probably be on the road by 2040, but the next 20 years will be an important time for car manufacturers to gauge the public’s interest and work to perfect this technology.
At the Fed, we heard a presentation from Martin Lavelle about the reasons for Detroit’s bankruptcy filing in 2013. He explained the city’s poor infrastructure, corrupt politics, bad schools, focus on one industry, and bad financial deals among other things. After this, he told us how some of these factors are improving or fixed, while others are still poor, in an attempt to show Detroit’s growth as a city since 2013. Paul Traub’s presentation was more about the volatility in the auto industry. His main point was that people stopped buying cars several years ago because we reached the natural limit of cars per household, but people will continue to buy cars in several years as families seek replacements for old cars.
After this, we visited the Piquette Museum, the first factory that Henry Ford created to produce Model T’s. The first stop on the tour was Ford’s old office, and I found it interesting that he had a table of plans and reading material even though he was illiterate. [Ford wasn’t illiterate, but he wasn’t a draftsman and couldn’t himself produce blueprints – that was in part a division of labor that persisted into the 1990s, after which computer-aided design software (CAD) meant virtually all engineers did their own drawings … the prof] We then moved on to look at the old Model T’s and the different variations that were restored and donated to the museum. I thought the snowmobile version was the coolest that we saw because the tour guide said a group of people still meet and ride around in these modified Model T’s annually.
Wednesday’s activities ended with a vegetarian dinner with Steve Finlay from Wards and Jim Treece and Dave Versical from Automotive News. since I was on the far side of the table, I only talked to Jim Treece, and he had a lot to say about Tesla’s potential failure. He thinks they need dealerships to thrive and make a profit, but he likes how Elon Musk has managed to intrigue the public and get people talking about his brand. We also talked about Toyota and their future as they move their corporate campus to Plano, Texas, several minutes away from my house. He mentioned their safety issues and recalls and how this hurt their previously sky-high reputation, but still sees high consumer support for the brand and its quality and reliability.
At the Center for Automotive Research, David Andrea talked to us about some of the research organization’s studies on electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. He mentioned how we need to continue testing autonomous vehicles and laying down the infrastructure for people to trust these vehicles in the next few decades and consider the safety benefits worth it enough to make the transition. He also said that Tesla needs to show that they can make a profit before Elon Musk is a credible automotive entrepreneur. When asked about China’s automotive future, he said they still need foreign partnerships to survive due to the low quality of the state-run companies.
In the afternoon, we visited the company I liked the most, Continental Structural Plastics (CSP). The engineers at this company started making plastic body and casing components that maintain their structural rigidity and don’t warp or melt in the 400 degree Fahrenheit painting process. This company started as a small operation with little credibility, but has continued to grow and prove plastic doubters wrong. Some see them as the future of vehicle bodies due to their durability and light weight construction, an important factor when thinking about upcoming fuel economy restrictions.
Giffin was the last company we visited on the trip, and they specialize in painting cars and parts by building structures for car companies. They innovate regarding better waste management by having a liquid scrubber under the booth that forms a liquid trap to mix the water and paint and eliminate extra paint waste. Their scrubber has the lowest pressure demand and water usage of any wet scrubber in the industry. Their painting robots also provide some of the most consistent and high-quality results in the industry, so a very low percentage of cars and parts have to get painted more than once.
Our last visit on Friday morning was to the Continental Structural Plastics plant in Carey, Ohio. This plant makes the composites for the front pieces of trucks and the detachable roofs fora 2016 model of Jeep with the 2017 coming soon. The main factory area is a large open space where machines stamp the plastics into shape. We then saw the Giffin-installed paint shop next door where these parts get painted and dried.
This Alfa Romeo 8C was my favorite car at the Pink Palace. I like the sleek racing body and the power from the V8 engine along with the red paint job. The engine in this car was considered a high-quality racing engine for its time, and the car had a long history of winning races against Ferrari and other top auto manufacturers.