Global engineering facilities are empty amid the COVID-19 pandemic as engineers work remotely. (ZF)

How ZF is engineering working from home

Auto engineers are staying productive and upbeat amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

Cheri Sczepanski is one of 2,700 members of ZF’s Foundation Brakes Engineering group who are coping with the COVID-19 shutdowns by finding humor where they can. When teams now working from homes in Germany, China and the U.S. get together for their usual collaborative meetings, background noises from other family members are not uncommon.

During one of the first teleconferences between homebound engineers, a baby’s cry was followed by an abrupt sing-off by a worker who said he was home alone with the infant. Sczepanski, who described him as a carefree jokester, was surprised when she saw his name on the daily meeting synopsis. “One action item was to ensure that he wasn’t left alone in charge of an infant again,” she laughed.

Such bright personal moments stand in contrast to the travails being endured by automotive employees whose facilities are now off limits. Dan Milot, senior VP of Brake Engineering at ZF, estimated that 90% of his team are locked out of their offices, with no idea how long this lockout will continue. ZF facilities are being kept open on a limited basis.

When staffers need to go in to set up physical tests or perform other tasks, they’re under strict guidelines. “They need to stay in their area, when no one’s around, it’s easy to stroll around,” Milot told SAE’s Automotive Engineering.” Within their neighborhood, they have to practice social distancing. If someone is found to have the virus, we want to know where they’ve been and who they may have been in contact with.”

The pain of the pandemic is being shared by corporations as well as employees. GlobalData said that nearly all production plants in North America and Europe shut down at least temporarily. “In Europe and North America, GlobalData’s latest estimates show that some 2.5 million light vehicles have been removed from production schedules at a cost of $77.7 billion in lost potential revenue, if it is assumed the stoppages last at least up until the end of April,” said Calum MacRae, GlobalData’s automotive analyst.

Those stuck working from home are enjoying a few industry trends that make their life easier. Teleconferencing tools have improved, and design software trends help engineers work remotely. “The fact that design has moved to the cloud means they do not need powerful workstations,” said Dominique Bonte, VP of end markets at ABI Research. “Additionally, there’s been a move to generative design, where designs are created automatically with artificial intelligence software so engineers don’t have to create everything.”

Design tool suppliers are helping ease the transition to working at home. For example, Siemens Digital Industries Software is working with corporate customers to enable home use of some design software. Dassault Systemes has established support teams dedicated to extending installations to employees working from home.

Companies like ZF are also beefing up support for home workers. Those remote workers are also learning how to manage when everyone is in a different location. “A lot more people are calling for teleconferences instead of sitting face-to-face,” Milot said. “The connections are not always great, which is a bit of an inconvenience. Our IT folks helped us get more VPN connections and more bandwidth. Things weren’t great the first day, but things have gotten better.”

Sczepanski, principal brake engineer at ZF’s Northville, Michigan, facility, hopes it won’t be too long before those VPN links are no longer needed. She misses the ability to wander over to chat with co-workers. These interactions often resulted in quick solutions to problems, sometimes with additional ideas for improving brake designs. She’s not the only one hoping that teleconferences aren’t needed for long. Some parents are particularly interested in a quick return to normal.

“With no school and everyone confined to the house, we get a lot of questions about when they can come back,” Milot said. He added that he’s been impressed with the way everyone has shown patience as they adjust to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic. But he’s concerned that the additional focus that’s made remote operations work may wane over time. “If one or two weeks turns into four, five or six, people may not be as motivated,” Milot explained. “Working online is difficult. I think a lot of people will suffer withdrawal syndrome at some point.”

Those who miss the camaraderie are often the first to tap into teleconferences, he continued. That’s because the first few minutes of the call are often a time for chit chat as they wait until everyone connects. While conversations with customers and fellow employees help remote workers stay in touch, interactions with family can have the opposite effect. These familial conversations can quickly consume a solid portion of the day, especially now when shelter in place rules put a lot of people in many homes.

Sczepanski minimized potential distractions by setting up an office in her basement. Though she prefers to work in the office, she’s found positives of working a few stair steps from home. “I usually pack my lunch, but now that I’m at home, I can just go upstairs and make lunch. When I’m done, I’m done. I just go upstairs. Having no drive home is kind of nice.” Keeping a positive outlook is an important aspect of coping with the changes wrought by coronavirus. One part of that is to continue the celebrations that would normally occur in the office, even if the festivities are divided by many miles.

“At the end of the day, we had a Skype meeting with 22 participants and it just so happened to be Dan’s birthday,” said ZF spokesperson John Wilkerson. “Someone on the call knew it was his birthday and decided to get the team to sing happy birthday to in unison, each from their own location not being able see each other, but just hear each other. It worked out quite well and was really special given the craziness of the day.”

Continue reading »