Automotive Career Field Structure
The modern automotive industry is massive, complex, and in a continual state of flux. The successful manufacturing of an automobile today—from drawing board to salesroom floor—depends equally upon the expertise of many different professions. There are numerous employment opportunities. If you really want to work in the automotive industry, whether it be in a business, technical, scientific, creative, financial, sales, mechanical, or assembly position, chances are there’s a spot for your specialty in or related to the industry.
Approximately 1.1 million people were employed in the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. About 63 percent worked in firms that produced motor vehicle parts. Twenty-three percent worked in firms that assembled complete motor vehicles and 13 percent worked in firms that produced truck trailers, motor homes, travel trailers, campers, and car, truck, and bus bodies.
The largest automotive employers in the United States are the Big Three: General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler. The headquarters for each of the Big Three and their divisions are located in Michigan. The major Japanese and some European automakers also contribute to U.S. industry employment with plants in the United States. These include Honda (and its Acura division), Nissan (and its Infiniti division), Toyota (and its Lexus division), Isuzu, Subaru, and Hyundai from Japan.
Automotive parts manufacturers are major employers in the industry. Parts makers employ engineers, scientists, and craftworkers. Parts industry engineers, designers, and scientists work with automakers in designing automobile assembly units in the original equipment manufacturing (OEM) markets. Craftworkers and assembly workers assemble the units and ship them to the automobile assembly plant. Some of the major OEM companies are Dana, Eaton, and TRW.
Aftermarket (or replacement) parts makers employ engineers and scientists to design and develop smaller automobile parts, such as spark plugs, belts, batteries, and filters. Assembly workers and craftworkers assemble the parts manually or operate machinery that does the assembly. Replacement parts suppliers work with both manufacturers and repair shops to supply parts for new cars and for existing models. Some of the major companies in the aftermarket industry include Genuine Parts, Pep Boys, and Federal-Mogul.
Automobile service technicians and collision repairers are employed in repair and maintenance shops, dealerships, and service stations throughout the United States. Many specialty shops are privately owned and hire only highly trained technicians experienced in many types of repairs, equipment, and car models. Technicians working for dealerships specialize in the models their dealership sells and often benefit from free training courses sponsored by the manufacturer or dealer. Many companies that have a fleet of automobiles, such as cab, car rental, and delivery companies, employ full-time service technicians to work on their cars.
Even before a car is manufactured, the manufacturer’s sales and marketing departments plan a promotional strategy. Sales and marketing workers must distribute information on the new cars well in advance of their public introduction. The vehicles built in pre-production pilot plants are used to introduce the new models to dealers and for other promotional activities. Along with the preparation of mass-media advertising, large quantities of product brochures are printed for distribution.
Sales representatives suggest to dealers a variety of sales campaigns that center around styling, engineering, and production features of the new models. Service personnel in the dealerships are trained for any new service and maintenance techniques.
Some service shops (many franchised) specialize in one type of repair, such as mufflers and exhaust systems. There are many chain maintenance shops that specialize in oil changes and minor maintenance procedures. These jobs may require less mechanically skilled workers to do simple, repetitive tasks.
The automotive industry relies on the coordination of four distinct operations: styling, where designers create new automobile looks and features in line with market surveys and acceptable to production engineers; engineering, where the intricacies of design are laid out, from engine requirements to electronics, all under price and quality guidelines; manufacturing, where parts are made and the automobile is assembled according to engineering specifications; and sales, where the final product is marketed and sold.
A new model must go through several steps before it is ready for production. They are market survey, modeling, prototype building, testing, evaluation, correction, design and production of the manufacturing machinery, and final assembly.
The effect a new development plan has on the manufacturing operation of a particular model assembly line varies according to the extent of design change. Some models may keep the same body shape for many years and only have a minor mechanical or aesthetic retooling, requiring little change in the assembly process. Other models may change completely and require major modifications to the assembly process. Manufacturers strive for a seamless switch, called integrated build, from one model production to the next. The largest extent of change comes with the introduction of a new product. Currently, new-product cycles (the number of years until a new product is added to the market) for U.S. automakers is about every eight years; the Japanese automakers are on about a four-year cycle.
Manufacturers use market surveys to forecast customer preferences in model design and features. They poll current owners of their automobiles, as well as people in demographically chosen areas, to collect public opinion of customer expectations, likes, and dislikes in their automobiles. Once a survey indicates a profitable market for a particular product, model makers build exact clay models of this proposed automobile. The models are made to resemble as close as possible the final product in order to give stylists, engineers, and executives the best feel for how the car will look. Clay models also provide the basis for engineering drawings and blueprints.
To ensure that new products or models fit within company guidelines, cost estimators, in collaboration with manufacturing and engineering experts, determine if the proposed new model can be manufactured according to cost and quality standards. They determine whether the new model can be built with existing factory equipment. Cost estimators write proposals detailing the extent of change and costs for a new model. Some new car proposals may not warrant expensive retooling to the factory. In this case, the new model is shelved for later consideration or sent back to the designers and engineers to be redesigned to assimilate better with existing manufacturing equipment.
From the approved model design (shape of car) and the specific dimensions design (dimensions of construction, such as inner panel supports, brackets, joints and flanges, door thickness, and other specifications), factory engineers create blueprints and tools for production. Manufacturing test facilities (or pilot plants) are reworked to handle the new models, while production continues on current models in the main plants. Depending upon the extent of change, new equipment may be needed to accommodate design and manufacturing requirements or existing equipment may be altered for the same purpose.
At pilot plants, mechanical prototypes are designed for early engineering, fabrication, and testing of chassis and engine components for new models and products. Once this basic foundation has passed rigorous engineering and safety tests, operational prototypes closely resembling the appearance and mechanics of the final car are built. Engineers use these prototypes to evaluate durability, functionality, safety, and serviceability of the car.
Before a car is manufactured on the final assembly line, numerous preparatory operations take place. Each part of the automobile, from the side paneling to the gas tank, must be shaped accurately by one or more different forming operations. Nearly all these operations can be divided into four basic operational groups: foundry, machining, forging, and stamping. Foundry operations workers pour molten metal into a mold where it cools and hardens into a casting. Castings are made for such parts as the engine block, cylinder head, or camshaft. When the casting cools, it is removed from the mold and trimmed to remove excess metal. Machining operators, who form one of the largest metalworking groups in the industry, shape the castings even further with tools that cut away excess metal.
Forging workers heat metal stock to shape parts such as crankshafts and connecting rods using forge hammers and presses. Paneling, such as car doors and hoods, is shaped in the stamping process. Sheet metal is placed between the punch (the upper form of the stamp) and the die (the lower form) and then pressed together at great pressure and velocity to form the panel.
Stamping workers perform three basic operations: blanking, piercing, and forming. Blanking cuts the excess metal to the specified size, and piercing punches holes where needed. In forming, the part is given its final shape. This sometimes requires a series of operations that may be performed progressively by a row of presses, each one bringing the part one step closer to its finished form.
At most assembly plants, manufacturing operations for many specific parts are contracted out to other firms. They fall into three main divisions: original equipment manufacturers (OEM), replacement (or aftermarket) parts, and rubber fabricating.
OEMs, the largest of the three, work closely with vehicle manufacturers to design and supply frames, bodies, engines, axles, wheels, transmissions, bearings, valves, bumpers, brakes, fuel injectors, seats, seat belts, airbags, and cushioning. They often sign contracts with manufacturers to produce the specific part for the life of the car. Replacement parts companies produce those parts of an automobile that eventually will need to be replaced, generally within three to seven years. They supply these parts for both new cars and as replacement parts for existing cars. Most parts companies specialize in a particular part, such as shock absorbers, brake pads, exhaust systems, wiper blades, spark plugs, batteries, or oil and gas filters, among others. Rubber fabricating companies supply tires, belts, hoses, valves, and other small rubber parts used throughout an automobile.
The basic assembly process is, for the most part, standard throughout the industry. Hundreds of workers and numerous machines perform thousands of essential tasks in the assembly of an automobile. There are two main assembly lines—body and chassis—and several smaller lines, all of which converge to one main line.