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Insider: Settling In

You may not have noticed it, but this issue includes a change of address for Automotive Design & Production.

You may not have noticed it, but this issue includes a change of address for Automotive Design & Production. We have been spending the past few weeks packing and throwing away press kits, computer equipment and notepads. While packing my boxes to prepare for the move I began to think about what it must have been like for the thousands of people who have either packed up their careers or moved into new cubicles as part of the recent round of buyouts completed at Ford and GM, as well as a number of key suppliers. For those who have decided it's time to move on, mixed emotions prevail. During a birthday celebration for one of my relatives, another guest walked into the room raised his hands and yelled, "I got a buyout!" At the same time, several folks I have talked to who did not get a buyout offer have become resigned to the fact that they have to help pick up the pieces and rebuild this once proud industry.

But it's not all gloom and doom. The auto industry still remains one of the most vital to the success of the U.S. economy, contributing more than $452 billion in Gross Domestic Product through the third-quarter of 2006, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Likewise, more than 1.09 million people are employed in the U.S. auto manufacturing and parts industry, with less than 250,000 falling into the OEM ranks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Those statistics place the industry among the most important in our economy and that's something we have to remember as we read and experience the dire news that has permeated of late.

The auto industry still matters and it will be increasingly important for our economy as we await the arrival of a new slate of competitors from China. We cannot throw in the towel and say that vehicle manufacturing and development doesn't matter and the industry is a dinosaur. Doing that would be detrimental to our economy, as failure would cause a ripple effect that would decimate other sectors, including home building and health care, just to name a few.

As a number of you unpack your boxes or take on new responsibilities, remember this: you matter. Your determination, along with those in the cubicle or workstation next to you, will be the foundation that will support the success of this industry in the next few years, which will be pivotal to the success of a couple of OEMs in particular, most notably Ford and GM.

The stakes, in the case of Ford, have never been higher: the company has mortgaged the house, including the Blue Oval itself, placing all of its bets on a plan that calls for the revamp of Ford and Lincoln design, along with a slew of new products, none of which will be able to stumble, even slightly. It's the biggest bet yet and failure is not an option. But the success of Ford's gamble not only rests on the shoulders of CEO Alan Mulally or Chairman Bill Ford, it rests on the shoulders of every designer, engineer and assembly line worker, who will have to step up yet again and create and act on a battle plan that raises the bar on innovation, quality and profitability. Copying what the other guys are doing or playing catch-up isn't going to work. A failure at Ford would send a bad signal to the world that America is losing the battle for auto supremacy and further erode confidence in products from its most notable competitors: GM and Chrysler.

Like their counterparts at Ford, GM's design, engineering and manufacturing staffs have to keep their nose to the grindstone and build world-class cars and trucks. The company has announced plans to boost its capital spending in the next few years, which is a milestone in itself considering prognosticators were digging a grave for GM just a year ago. Still, this is no time for the folks at GM to raise their hands in the air and declare victory. That would be stupid.

On a wider spectrum, we all need to continue to try to point out the positive things the auto industry brings to the world. New technologies, including plug-in hybrids, clean diesel engines, just two examples, play a role in helping the environment which will reach far beyond the pavement. We must also focus on assuring that our nation will have a population of capable engineers and designers to assure that America remains a player. Failure to focus on the future, beyond the boxes in our offices, will be more detrimental than any headlines that have been written in the past year. One more thing: Remember to use your legs and not your back when unpacking your gear. 

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