Insights from industry

Detroit and the Automotive Industry

Dr Don Cohen, Principal of Michigan Metrology LLC, talked about how Detroit has served the automotive industry over the last 70 years. His insight explains the evolution of Detroit from manufacturing powerhouse to technology powerhouse.

How did it all start, what made Detroit?

Why are we here in Detroit? Want to know why? Louis XIV, that's where it all started in 1701. The king commissioned a guy called Cadillac from Montreal to come down the river and the Lakes and establish a fort on the Detroit River. You know what Louis XIV wanted more than anything in 1701? Fur! The beaver, that's why we're here - because they had totally destroyed the beaver population in Europe. So it all started in 1701 basically looking for fur. This is how Detroit got started. Detroit is French for ‘strait or narrows’ and I guess as it's a narrow stretch between two lakes it's a major crossing point for a lot of the waterways. From an industrial point of view, particularly where there were no trains and no planes and only boats, this is a great place to start a city because of transportation. It's no surprise that we started as a transportation city for the fur trade, but then developed into the automotive transportation industry.
Tribology: Detroit and the Automotive Industry

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What drove the city into automobiles and industry?

We were fortunate enough to have people like Henry Ford who happened to be living here on farms and wanted to build cars. And also because of the lakes and the ability to get ore and other raw materials around and between the different suppliers. When you go through the history of Detroit, you realize that it all started with transportation and the river boats. The automobile really didn't start until the early 1900s. Before cars this was known for wood. This was a huge lumbering area. The waterways allowed us to take all the trees from the Upper Peninsula and bring them down here. Really, the automotive industry is new here, but we're tied to the automobile. The automobile is our bread and butter and as that economy comes and goes, that affects us greatly and we're like a self-defeating entity. We're trying to build cars that last forever, which probably isn't a good thing if you're trying to sell more cars.

The big auto companies - they all started here - then what happened? What happened to Detroit?

I’ve got a great expression for that, borrowed with apologies. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. To explain, here is what I think happened to Detroit: Detroit was a powerhouse. I mean, following 1945 there was only one manufacturing center in the world and that was Detroit, right here, in the United States. The city took off like crazy. The growth was phenomenal. The City of Detroit, I think at its peak, had over two million people living there. It was no big deal to grow up in a city neighborhood, and right down the street is where you worked. The city was a big factory and all the suppliers were all probably millionaires, making springs and clips and whatever it was that went into the car. That was just part of the life here. You never left more than a few square miles and you had all you needed. You had the whole world economy right there. Then, we took our eye off the ball. We lost sight of worldwide competition. As the world recovered after the War, by the '60s and '70s, Japan came on strong. Essentially, Japan made a better product at a lower cost and that's how business works. The center of capitalism got a real dose of its own dogma. If you build a better product at a lower price, people are going to buy it and if you snooze you lose. Detroit lost its market share to the competition.

Who are the major competitors?

The American market is huge and we’ve got a lot of great technology here, but when it goes real high end it seems to be Europe. The whole concept of really high-end automotive engineering starts in Europe. When you go to mass production and incredible quality, high-volume, it's Asia. Unfortunately, Detroit is right in the middle and that’s what happened in the '60s and '70s. If you wanted a real high-end car, it was the Mercedes. If you wanted a lower end cheap car, it was Toyota, and Detroit got squeezed. We thought we were invincible, but you build a better product at a lower price and you get a lesson.

How has Detroit managed to make a comeback?

Well, let me tell you what's happened in Detroit in the last 20-years. I grew up here, I was born here. I left in the '70s, came back in the '90s. When I left, it was the worst of times. It was the mid to late '70s. The Japanese were here, and there were all kinds of bad stuff going on in the streets. We were seeing the decline of Chrysler. But we didn't realize that 20 or 30 years later we were going to see GM and Chrysler go bankrupt. We didn't learn all that much. There's a lot of political reasons and I won't get into all that. But now Detroit has morphed into another world capital of automotive ─ but I wouldn't want to say it's strictly American. I think there was statistic out that the car in America, that's built with most American parts, is actually a Toyota! It's not an American car. Now, in Detroit you see the world tech centers for Toyota and Nissan. The area has changed because we are now a global center for automotive engineering. Sure, we still have the North American Automotive Market, which is like some 15 million cars a year, so who wouldn't want to be here, right, whether you're European or Asian! We have seen Detroit change from being just an American car company place to a worldwide car company place, and that's where we are now. We had to respond and we can compete.

Would you say that's because, other than those two big US companies, it's all the supplier companies?

Well yes, to a degree. If you think about the infrastructure that's here in terms of making a car. It's amazing. The infrastructure is phenomenal since it's been here for over 100 years. Whatever it is that you need to build a car, suppliers are literally right down the street from you. Also, your customers are right here as well. I mean, this is a big part of the country, the Midwest. This is a great place to be if you're in the automotive industry. Why would you be anywhere else? That's the main reason ─ the infrastructure is phenomenal. For example, are you familiar with Roush racing? It's a big NASCAR racing team. Jack Roush lives in Detroit. He grew up here. He's a math major from Eastern Michigan. He's also a very successful entrepreneur and he's into cars. Roush Industries does nothing but advance technology for the auto industry, and it's all in this area of Lavonia ─ and NASCAR is one of his hobbies. I mean that's kind of how it is, that's Detroit. People don't know about it. One of my friends says, "It's just a very unsung place. There's no Steve Jobs of Detroit," but there's thousands of people like Steve Jobs here. You just don't know it.

How will Detroit manage in the future?

Transportation is really what Detroit's driven by. Automobiles happen to be a key area and currently we're getting more and more into other aspects of transportation. We have to constantly reinvent ourselves and create more value for our customers. As you see it now, the morphing that's going on. We're moving away from being a car city to a transportation city. Focusing on the concept of transportation, that's why you see the various automobile companies getting involved in companies like Uber and Lyft and buying up these technology disrupters. Because we provide transportation we have to evolve, and I'm sure we will be building other modes of transportation as we progress. For example, you may not know the history of this, but the Ford Motor Company used to make airplanes in the early days. During World War II, most of the bombers were built not more than 20 miles from here, in Ypsilanti.

How do you fit into the new Detroit and has it changed you?

At Michigan Metrology, and at Bruker, we do a lot in transportation as the automobile in particular has all kinds of technology. And all that technology is driven by three things: styling, safety, and warranty or reliability, and that touches all kinds of material science. I spend my life measuring 3D surface texture. For the last 30 years I have been measuring an area one millimeter by one millimeter by about 100 microns to 500 microns tall. I've made a life out of that small volume of space because there's so much that goes on in that space related to the automotive industry. Be it a piston ring interface, to the way your fingers feel on the steering wheel. All that relates to the surface finish. I remember when we never thought about gas mileage out here. Everything was power cars and muscle cars. We weren't so sensitive to the cost of gas. But now there are two drivers, emissions and also miles per gallon. These things drive what we do and we start to be concerned about solder bores and surface finishing on an engine and the ring sliding up and down, the lubricants and related engine issues. This takes us to surface metrology and mechanical tester stuff─friction, wear, and lubrication. The thing is, I don't think from what I've read these are what drives the buyer so much. The buyer still looks majorly at styling, safety, and warranty. The environmental considerations, they have by law, and they expect better mileage anyway, now that the price of gas has gone up. That's kind of it.

Learn about the instruments in Don’s Lab



About Donald K. Cohen Ph.D

Dr. Cohen has an undergraduate degree in Physics from the University of Michigan – Dearborn and graduate degrees in Physics and Optical Sciences from the University of Arizona. Early in his career, Dr. Cohen worked with IBM on optical disk drive development. He later joined WYKO Corporation as Product Manger and finally Vice President, developing 3D surface texture metrology instrumentation. In 1994, Dr. Cohen established Michigan Metrology,LLC to help engineers and scientist solve problems related to “leaks, squeaks, friction, wear, appearance, adhesion and other issues”, using 3D Surface MicroTexture Measurement and Analysis.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Stuart Milne

Written by

Stuart Milne

Stuart graduated from the University of Wales, Institute Cardiff with a first-class honours degree in Industrial Product Design. After working on a start-up company involved in LED Lighting solutions, Stuart decided to take an opportunity with AZoNetwork. Over the past five years at AZoNetwork, Stuart has been involved in developing an industry leading range of products, enhancing client experience and improving internal systems designed to deliver significant value for clients hard earned marketing dollars. In his spare time Stuart likes to continue his love for art and design by creating art work and continuing his love for sketching. In the future Stuart, would like to continue his love for travel and explore new and exciting places.


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