A View from a Life-Long Engineer: Working remotely and adapting to a new situationInterview conducted in May 2020
Meet K.B., an engineer at a global commercial vehicle manufacturer in the Midwest. He has been with his company for his entire career since the mid-1990s, mostly in driveline and exhaust systems. He is also very involved in SAE International as an author of publications and as a reviewer for papers. We spoke to him as he commemorates his 25th work anniversary with retirement coming up on the horizon in a few years.
SAE: How would you have described your professional goals on New Year’s Day 2020, actually not too long ago. None of us had an idea what might be in front of us. What were your goals five, ten years into the future?
K.B.: I'm planning to work five more years before retirement. I am an individual contributor to quite a few projects at my company. My plan was just to continue to contribute and be a technical advisor to colleagues. Things were looking really good on January 1 for me, my company and our industry in general. Our company had very good results, so that was very positive as of January 1.
SAE: And how have your goals changed over the last five months?
K.B.: Well, they really haven't. Our company is considered an essential business, so we are all working just like we were before. Of course, I am working from home now, but other than that, the goals haven't really changed a lot.
SAE: Do you anticipate long-term changes from the pandemic?
K.B.: I do foresee more people working remotely in the future. And like even myself, I think I might be able to work from home maybe three out of four days a week, maybe go to the office once or twice a week. I think that will probably continue. We do have to run our laboratories at the company. That means, we do have staff that need to interact with the lab equipment and test facilities. Our engineers and technicians do that, with whom I interact on a regular basis. All in all, I foresee continuing to work from home probably 50 to 75 percent of my time.
SAE: Do you like that?
K.B.: Yes, I do. I still put in my hours and have a routine scheduled every day. I'm on conference calls probably four or five hours a day. That gets dull at times. I do miss the interaction of stopping by somebody's desk and just talking about projects or even just shooting the breeze. I do miss that.
SAE: Through this COVID-19 situation, is there something where you are now required to be an expert where you didn't need to be one before? Or did you need to adopt or learn a new expertise skillset, something that just wasn't there before?
K.B.: Actually, I really haven't. I was considered a technical expert at my company, so I'm still able to parlay that off to other engineers and meetings. I've always had pretty good presentation skills. Now that I'm working remotely and giving presentations, that is not really much of a change.
SAE: Do you think that your peers, whether that's within your company or maybe other business contacts, that they would answer in a similar way, like "… well, not too much change…”?
K.B.: I really don’t see that much of a change. We have daily meetings with my close personal team of five engineers and technicians. And then, I have weekly meetings with the large group of 28 people. We do a roundup at the end of the week and ask people how they're doing, whether they have any problems or concerns. I think it's actually working quite well, and everybody's engaged, too. And you can tell, if they're making progress. My impression is people have been coping quite well. I mean, we have people in the group that are doing CAD design and they're able to remotely connect into their desktops at work and get their work done sufficiently. They're able to get help when needed. And then, it's easy to set up these Skype calls too, if you have any concerns with your team.
SAE: It sounds as though your particular company is mostly going on with business as usual. Do you think that is maybe indicative of a larger trend for the commercial vehicle industry versus the passenger car industry? Do you think you are maybe more likely to rebound faster? And if so, why or why not?
K.B.: Well, as engineers we are still able to get our work done. However, sales are down. I think we're down 18 percent or so. There are definitely concerns about maintaining our income and how we're going to do in the future.
SAE: Has the pandemic given your company any new sets of considerations in terms of manufacturing, how they're going to bring people back to full manufacturing capacity?
K.B.: We have a plan to get back to full capacity. All our facilities are actually running and have run through the majority of this pandemic. I think there might have been one or two factories around the world that were off for a week or so. We have our test cells and we have run three shifts. Two shifts are working for two weeks and one shift is off, just in case one shift gets infected. Then that entire shift would be off and they'd bring back the shift that was originally off. I think many companies are doing that. Sales are down, so you don't need to be at 100 percent manufacturing capacity, but we're still producing vehicles. And we actually were able to do a launch of a new vehicle during the pandemic and that went off without a hitch. So, that was pretty impressive.
SAE: Do you see any kind of regional differences? And this is, do you think there's maybe more capacity for vehicles in the United States versus the rest of the world or is it maybe just unchanged?
K.B.: We haven't seen much change in that. After all, in commercial vehicles, the equipment does wear out at some point. Customers do need to replace their equipment every so many years. Yes, they'll put off new sales if they can, but eventually they have to buy new equipment. So, it's a cyclical cycle, like a lot of the industries have. At the moment, we have factories here in the United States running relatively normal. I know our facilities in Europe and India for instance have been up and running as well, maybe at somewhat reduced capacity. Just things in general aren't too bad.
SAE: Would you be able to share any shifts in focus or direction from your company related to some of the things going on or any projects that you think might be delayed because of this?
K.B.: I cannot share specifics, but it is safe to say that some things have been delayed; not only due to COVID, but due to other things too. Some budgets have been reduced like everybody else's budgets as well because of general concerns. So, that has delayed some projects.
SAE: Where do you think that SAE as an organization could put its network, its infrastructure, its organization to work, especially in this situation?
K.B.: I look at where SAE has been performing successfully in the past, I think we have to keep the technical papers coming in and being published. That is one area that SAE still needs to be a leader. Members really rely on the SAE technical literature to help us through our business. For instance, at our company, we download lots of SAE papers each year. SAE needs to make sure that those papers continue to be high-quality and are meeting our needs.
Now, for the future, everybody's talking about data analytics. Our company is the same way. We need to become more experts at that. And I expect, hopefully, we get more papers published in those areas. Anything that SAE can help in that area would be great. Our company has a vast number of vehicles out there today streaming data to servers that we need to try to analyze. And we're trying to get our heads around that, but, every industry is trying to do that today.
In the short term this could be technical sessions in data analytics, maybe one for light duty vehicles, one for heavy duty, one for off-highway and so forth. And people can publish how they are using that data and how they use it to their benefit. Universities and other independent agencies can probably publish data in that area.
SAE: What other recommendations would you have for SAE as an organization?
K.B.: I've just been involved in SAE quite a bit and it's amazing. We have those committees for specific technical topics and we have no trouble getting people to volunteer. The trouble we have is people don't want to get off of the committees. We're trying to get more young people on the committees and it's hard to fit them in because we're full, because we got so many people that don't want to give up their role. I'm one of them actually.
And another thing to consider: I know SAE has been trying to get the journals to be more peer reviewed, also to be of higher quality. I have also been involved in reviewing journal papers and not just technical papers. Hopefully people will not stop submitting papers to conferences because we need those papers to draw people to conferences. In the meantime, we have to make sure we get good quality journal papers, too. I haven't seen this work yet, but we're trying to take the very good journal papers and then ask authors to present at conferences. So, hopefully that can work itself out.
SAE: Let's say, and this is hypothetical, there might be significantly less in-person conferences and more is moving to online conferences. Would you then be concerned that people have less of an incentive to submit a paper, because they cannot present it in person and don't hear the applause and don't get the interaction. What do you think?
K.B.: My opinion is we should still have the in-person conferences because people do like to present in front of an audience. Again, maybe that will change in the future. We'll see how well the virtual SAE WCX will go in June, how many people will participate in that. I did hear one colleague of mine saying that he already purchased or read the papers that he is interested in. So, there's no reason to call into the conference and hear the authors present in person. But that would not be the case if we have a virtual conference before the papers are published.
And adding to that, a lot of people say businesses aren't going to have so much travel in the future anymore. So, it might be more difficult for people to even attend these conferences. That would be a concern.
SAE: You talked about data analysis and keeping up the work with the papers. And SAE does calls for papers independent of the events now, too. Now, with a focus towards a younger generation of engineers, is there another format or type of content we should be looking at to reach out to them, that they readily consume? Or do we just stick with papers?
K.B.: That's a good question. I'm responsible for SAE MOBILUS at our company, so I push out a lot of information to make sure our engineers are reading those papers. So yes, for sure, going forward there are different mediums to consider, the younger generation might prefer listening to podcasts. But after all, when we have technical issues at our company, I encourage people to do a literature search and go to SAE MOBILUS and see if they can find some papers that will help them out.
SAE: Okay, that gets us to the last question, which is, if there's just one piece you want us to keep in mind as a takeaway from this conversation, what would it be, one piece we should remember?
K.B.: Well, I'll just stress it again. I rely on SAE for the technical content. So, make sure you keep the technical content up and distribute it to the members. You need to keep the members somewhat involved in reviewing papers. That's what I see for SAE.