Confession time. I don’t really work in the automotive field. I’m what would be considered a cradle to grave engineer designing widgets for a small aerospace supplier.
Many people think the aerospace world is always leading in innovations, but in reality, it is very conservative. This is partly due to the FAA regulations which require that everything that goes in the air must have a paperwork trail going back to when the material was made. Any design must have a mountain of paper that must be approved along with extensive and expensive qualification testing before the item is put on the first test airplane. All this stifles risk taking with new concepts or materials. Only the bigger companies will employ R&D departments.
Most of the time, the R&D groups come up with incremental improvements to existing product lines, but occasionally, they will have significant breakthroughs. Over the years I’ve worked with many people who came from these R&D departments and they were always proud of what they invented but frustrated. Why? Because most of their work was killed by upper management that was too afraid to take a risk to press forward.
The other frustration many of these engineers experience is the knowledge that their innovations would be a winner in the non-aerospace world. And what is the reason these companies couldn’t pursue such innovations outside the aerospace market? It is the rules of the FAA. One cannot produce a non-aerospace product or product line in a certified FAA facility. The QA system required for one will not allow for the other. If the invention were to be used say for a racecar, the company would have to set up a completely separate facility to make it, which is an expensive undertaking.
The reason I bring this up is I recently visited a client and while talking with my counterpart engineer at lunch, he explained he had originally been developing and testing new clutch materials for helicopter engines which overcame many the problems with carbon brakes. The company was pleased with his results but was hesitant to pursue it because the certification process was very expensive. This individual had pushed to get it used in other fields like F1 racing brakes as a way to promote its advantages and even was able to get some test time on a brake dynamometer where it was so effective, it destroyed the setup without destroying itself.
As usual in a large company when faced with something outside the box, the many layers of managers started making excuses as to the why he couldn’t proceed further and quickly transferred him to a department where his experience was of little use.
Now it gripes me when something that may be a quantum leap in brake technology is buried by pointy- haired bosses protecting their mini empires (my experience with such companies only confirms that Dilbert isn’t a comic but a documentary). I just find it sad that such advances in brake technology will now have to be re-discovered by somebody else, probably offshore.