Alabama universities plug into industry with auto research projects

Alabama universities plug into industry with auto research projects
Dr. Bharat Balasubramanian teaches an automotive engineering class at the University of Alabama entirely in German. (University of Alabama)

Alabama isn’t only a major center for auto manufacturing, it’s also a growing hub for research and development projects that drive future industry technologies.

At the University of Alabama, the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies offers interdisciplinary education, as well as research projects to prepare the next generation of automotive engineers.

The center’s research is focused on electronics, energy storage and fuel cells, materials and manufacturing, and powertrains. The university also is strategically positioned in the field of vehicle hybridization, with a leading engine and combustion research program, and a well-developed electric drive program.

“These are interesting research projects, and we have interaction between the industry and the professors here, who are also getting more insight into what really drives the automotive companies,” said Bharat Balasubramanian, engineering professor and the research center’s executive director.

He is also the former vice president of group research and advanced engineering at Mercedes-Benz in Germany.

Balasubramanian, a featured speaker at this month’s Southern Automotive Conference in Birmingham, retired after nearly 40 years as a research and development engineer at Mercedes, where he was responsible for product innovations and process technologies.

These days, he works to strengthen ties between the university and the automotive industry, while aligning some coursework to meet industry needs.

Research and development programs are crucial to maintain the long-term stability of Alabama’s auto industry, he said.

Mercedes-Benz recently announced a $1 billion expansion plan in Alabama that includes the launch of electric vehicle production. The nearby University of Alabama is strengthening its ties to the automotive industry. (Mercedes-Benz)

Becoming electric

Last month, Mercedes announced plans to launch electric vehicle production at its Tuscaloosa County plant, a $1 billion investment by the German automaker, and a topic Balasubramanian has long championed.

During his time with Mercedes, he was a proponent for electric drive, connected driving and autonomous driving, and he also worked closely with Tesla founder Elon Musk, during Mercedes parent Daimler’s past collaborations with the electric carmaker.

“Since coming here, I’ve been preaching that we need more computer scientists and electrical engineers, as the industry is becoming more electrified,” he said.

Balasubramanian also teaches an automotive engineering course entirely in German, thought to be a first for American students in the Southeast. It’s part of an innovative exchange, internship and academic track, which he coordinates, that is designed to give students experience with state-of-the-art automotive engineering and exposure to the high-tech environment in the German auto industry.

The program includes a rigorous course of study in Alabama, followed by time in Germany, studying at a university and working at Mercedes or a supplier.

Balasubramanian also guides a doctoral fellowship program that links the university with Mercedes operations in Alabama and Germany.

“Together we are developing a program where outstanding UA graduates can do their Ph.D. dissertation research in the Mercedes-Benz labs in Germany working on scientific challenges and gaining hands-on experience in an industrial setting,” he said.

“These Ph.D. engineers will be an extremely valuable asset to the automotive industry in Alabama.”

Workers assemble SUVs at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa County. A former Mercedes engineer and vice president now heads the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies at the University of Alabama. (Mercedes-Benz)

Southern alliance

Elsewhere in Alabama, Auburn University and the University of Alabama in Huntsville are working together as part of the Southern Alliance for Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing Center.

The two schools, along with Clemson University, make up a consortium that is seeking an official designation as a National Science Foundation research center.

The center is focused on broad manufacturing topics related to the automotive industry, including production, equipment, processes, materials and logistics, said Gregory Harris, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at Auburn and director of the center.

Companies sign up as members, and they can ask researchers at the universities for help in solving manufacturing issues.

“This allows us to integrate all of those things together and work with companies and engage with the industry at a higher level,” Harris said. “We’ve already got members and projects, some of which are completed, so there is a lot of good happening.”

One project was at a supplier near Auburn that had a quality problem, with a 30 percent scrap rate. Students looked at the problems, developed a data collection technique, put together a system that highlighted where the issues were and presented it to company officials.

“This was the first time they had ever been able to get all the data in one tool to allow them to understand what was going on. Now they have reduced the 30 percent scrap rate to a 10 percent scrap rate and hired one of our students,” he said.

The center offers a problem-solving capability to companies that don’t always have time for it on their own, in the midst of daily operations demands, Harris said. And the center’s collaborative nature means the problem-solving team can include a variety of contributors from different universities.

For the universities, the center offers students valuable experience in a real-world manufacturing setting, boosting future job prospects. It also gives faculty a window into the needs of modern automotive operations and how students need to be prepared for jobs in the field.

To become a member, companies sign up with the individual universities. So far, Auburn has five signed membership agreements and three more letters of commitment from firms that will join when the official designation as an NSF research center is granted.

UAH and Clemson each have four letters of commitment.

There are also efforts to bring universities in Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia into the consortium.

“There’s a need for industry to have a relationship for academic research, because they have limited resources to do their own,” Harris said. “The industry doesn’t do that on its own anymore, to any great degree, so we are giving them access to what’s coming down road and what they could be looking for in future.”

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

Related Stories