Plymouth, Mich. — Vehicle safety and customer satisfaction are two drivers that have been intertwined throughout Michael Whitens' 30-year-plus career in the automotive industry.
The now-retired former global director of vehicle and enterprise sciences at Ford Motor Co.'s Research and Innovation Center has led the development of technology strategy and implementation to support emerging areas including materials and manufacturing, mobility solutions, vehicle components and systems, connectivity, lightweighting, structures and composites, additive manufacturing and other big auto trends.
"I was in charge of the vehicle side of research," Whitens, 57, said during an interview with Plastics News. "In that role, we worked on the innovation for many of the components that you see in the vehicle that were not powertrain."
That work has also included projects focusing on the development of innovative automotive plastics applications — ranging from interiors and exteriors to under-the-hood — where he demonstrated expertise in microcellular foaming, long-fiber thermoplastic composites, natural fiber composites, carbon fiber composites, metal-plastics hybrid molding and more.
Prior to that, Whitens was the global director of body interior engineering, where he was responsible for the quality, cost, weight, function and delivery of a more than $15 billion commodity base that included cockpits, hard and soft trim, seats, restraints, climate systems and interior lighting for all Ford vehicles globally.
"Plastics are an enabler to satisfy the customer," he said. "Essentially, what we looked at is, how can you surprise and delight the customer in ways that they see and in ways that they don't see? Plastics afford the opportunity to combine parts and to look at designing parts in different ways."
Whitens officially retired from Ford in 2018 and is now an adviser at the self-titled consulting firm Michael Whitens LLC, where he's currently working with BASF 3D Printing Solutions GmbH in additive manufacturing.
The father of two said he finds the most joy in solving problems and mentoring others — both of which are ingrained in his career field.
"The automotive industry is one large team — not only at the OEM level, but all the tiers, all the way down to the shop floor and the people assembling the car," Whitens said. "Every innovation that you bring to market is 10 times harder than releasing carry over. And it takes people with passion to truly innovate because the easy way out is not to innovate."
On Nov. 6, he'll receive the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Plastics Engineers' automotive division during the 49th annual Automotive Innovation Awards Gala in Livonia, Mich.
Whitens sat down with PN to discuss the award, his career in automotive and plastics, and the big themes that have shaped his path forward in both industries.
Q: You're retired from Ford, but you're still involved in plastics and automotive, especially as a member of SPE. What keeps you excited about both of these industries, especially the role of plastics and certain materials going forward?
Whitens: One thing that keeps me going is the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. And the innovation landscape keeps getting broader and broader, so it's exciting to me to see emerging developments in plastics and nanotechnologies. It's exciting to me to see the transitions in additive manufacturing and what that can do for us — not only from an innovation standpoint, but also from an environmental aspect. Think about a future world where you're shipping resin at 99 percent density and you're building to customer order on-site. What a difference we can make in the world. That's what keeps me going every day.
Q: You're going to be honored with SPE's Lifetime Achievement Award on Nov 6. What does this mean to you?
Whitens: It's truly a wonderful recognition of the hard work of many people at Ford and also all throughout the supply base because one thing I learned in automotive early on is no one innovates on their own. And all of our suppliers, all of our peers, it takes a village to innovate. And I think that's the thing I look back on. That's the most rewarding.
Q: In terms of emerging materials, or emerging applications, what do you see right now as a key area focus for automotive?
Whitens: Well, I think additive manufacturing is a key area of focus. I think we have an opportunity to take additive from purely the prototype stage to full-scale production, and I think that's a tremendous journey. From a plastics perspective, I think leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to tailor plastics at the nano level to solve customer problems. Those are two of the key areas that I see.
Q: Looking back on your 30-year-plus career in the automotive industry, what achievements are you most proud of?
Whitens: Two areas: Certainly, from a people standpoint, mentoring and developing people because without people, innovation doesn't occur. And then from an innovation standpoint, it would be one of the innovations that we had in the safety realm. One of the big ones would be seamless airbags, which the integration of seamless airbags at all temperature variants not only improved the aesthetics of the vehicle, but also kept people safe.
Q: Safety seems to be a really big theme throughout the course of your career, right?
Whitens: Absolutely. I mean, to me, there's nothing more rewarding when we talk about innovation. When you get a letter from a customer, that they didn't even realize they had an airbag in the car, and they get out of a vehicle and walk away. And when you see a picture of the car, all you see is the occupant cabin is safe, and everything else crushed. And that's something that you wouldn't have seen 40 years ago, and it's really rewarding. And it used to spur us on as engineers when we get letters from people that we actually save lives. So, to me, that's the most rewarding thing when I think about the innovations that we put together.
Q: What guided your path to either the plastics or automotive industries?
Whitens: I gravitated to automotive because it was the largest and most difficult consumer product, and it was an opportunity to design things that could satisfy customers — that you'd get real feedback.
Q: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
Whitens: My first supervisors. Dan Kazewych in General Motors' Buick-Olds-Cadillac C/H vehicle platform taught me how to innovate and the importance of electromechanical components to the automotive industry. I was also exposed to plastic and tape drive window systems, which taught me the importance of lightweighting and the role that plastics play in innovation. Bill Shelton in Ford's restraints/safety systems taught me the importance of attention to detail, focusing on the customer and the rigors required to release robust safety systems in automotive vehicles.
I will never forget the outstanding mentorship and guidance these two mentors gave me, which has carried me throughout my career.
Q: What has been the key to your success?
Whitens: Persistence, drive and attention to detail — the key to seeing innovation through to high-volume production.
Q: What was the biggest setback you faced, and how did you learn from it and move forward?
Whitens: When you innovate, setbacks are part of the process. Persistence and attention to detail help guide you through — regardless of the outcome — to satisfy the customer.
Q: What is the best piece of advice that you've received throughout your career?
Whitens: Pay attention to the details and never let setbacks get in the way of your ultimate goal: satisfied customers.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that automotive and plastics are facing going forward?
Whitens: Well, I think it's challenges and it's opportunities. It's transitioning to the digital world and leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to help develop plastics in the future, to leverage them to focus on additive manufacturing, which is one of the key areas of opportunity. In the next 10-15 years we will be printing vehicles and printing components in the automotive industry, and to really focus on how you develop that along the journey.
Q: You mentioned additive manufacturing, which has a growing role in automotive. In your experience, how will the plastics industry further influence automotive in the years to come?
Whitens: The plastics industry in general is a building block for the automotive industry, so whether it's additive, whether it's conventional processes, continuing to change and evolve in plastics. We'll have tailored plastics that use artificial intelligence to tailor to specific properties. So, plastics will always be a building block of the automotive industry.
Q: The automotive industry is also changing really fast. How has the focus changed throughout the course of your career, especially in terms of material use, and just the whole landscape of the automotive industry in general?
Whitens: The beauty of the automotive industry, honestly, is everything is always changing. It's once we solve one problem, it actually opens up a larger landscape. And the thing that I always learned in automotive is good at the speed of light is better than great, too late. You have to develop something, but you also have to hit a job, one, that delivers to the customer. And it's not innovation until it goes into production.
Q: And have you noticed in the course of your career the supply chain is shifting a little bit as automakers invest in more technology startups?
Whitens: The biggest change in my 30 years is the reduction in the supply base. And because of the intense capital requirements, it's much more difficult for small companies to make inroads. So that's the biggest thing that I've seen change.
Q: What about all of the consolidation among suppliers?
Whitens: I think that's a trend that will continue as you get into autonomy, and there are big requirements. But then, like every other trend, it will reverse itself and years from now someone will be small and lean, like you see startups coming on. And I think those are, you know, you will see that come back.
Q: With autonomous vehicles, it seems like automakers are kind of shifting the focus back to electrification first because full autonomy is more difficult, and expensive, than they originally anticipated, right?
Whitens: The vision of autonomous vehicles is a wonderful thing, but it's also a tremendous challenge. But the important thing is every step we take along the way makes the vehicle a little bit safer. Every driver-assistance technology makes the vehicle a little bit safer. So it's no different than President Kennedy telling us to go to the moon, and all the technologies that were developed because of that effort that spurred the industry. Autonomy is kind of like that. It's like a moonshot. And then all the technologies that you learn to get you there are going to make vehicles safer and safer. So, it's a very positive journey.
Q: What is the challenge for this next generation of automotive engineers and designers?
Whitens: There is so much information out there. And in today's world, you are overexposed. So taking this large array of information and focusing and distilling it down to a meaningful area that you can make a difference, I think, is going to be the biggest challenge because there's a lot more information available to a young engineer than when I started.
Q: And what advice would you give to millennials or younger generations who are following a similar career path?
Whitens: The key thing for me is don't be afraid of a challenge and go after what you believe is right for society, for your company, for yourself. Don't walk away from the challenges because those are always the most rewarding. When you look back at your career, it's those difficult tasks that you took on to satisfy the customer or to improve things for the shareholder that always make a difference and that you always remember.