Ford Scientific Research Laboratory Reaches 50 Year Milestone
DEARBORN, Mich., April 01, 2001 - Ford Motor Company's Scientific Research Laboratory, a lightning rod for progress and innovation, marks its 50th anniversary today. The lab has made significant contributions to the auto industry and society, developing cleaner, safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
This research will continue under the leadership of Dr. Gerhard Schmidt, who assumes the position of vice president-Research at Ford Motor Company today. He joins Ford from BMW AG, where he led powertrain development. Schmidt will lead a team of more than 1,000 scientists, engineers and technicians from over 50 countries whose collaborative work is a model for diversity.
"Without the dedication of our scientists, Ford would never have reached this golden moment in history," Schmidt said. "Today, I am inheriting a legacy of innovation and leadership built by extremely dedicated people."
A good example of this is Technical Specialist Jim Vallance who has been with the lab for 50 years. Vallance came to the U.S. from Scotland as a teenager and began working at the lab when he was 19.
"As I look back, I feel I have been consistently challenged in the lab with new and exciting projects and have worked with interesting people," Vallance said. "Ford Motor Company provided me a great opportunity to fulfill all my expectations for a career. I was not only given employment, but also encouraged to improve my skills through education, which the company fully funded. In effect, they gave me the opportunity to work hard and live the American Dream."
Ford Motor Company created the Research Lab in 1951 at the start of an era of intense scientific exploration following World War II. Ford was one of many large, industrial companies to contribute to this increased emphasis on basic scientific research. The company established the laboratory as a way to bring brainpower together and look at future issues that might affect the automotive industry. As in other areas of society, interest in space exploration provided inspiration leading to the development of lightweight materials and new forms of propulsion, such as gas turbines in the 1960s.
There was a strong emphasis on fundamental sciences; chemistry, physics, and materials science in "Scientific City," as the lab was known. "The programs were very large, long range and covered tremendous scope," Vallance said. "We were looking at public, commercial and passenger car transportation."
Some of the projects of this era reflect that philosophy. For example, LEVICAR, a vehicle levitated by magnets, was developed for high-speed transportation systems. The LEVICAR only required a blower in the back to propel it, and a working model was actually built. Although the LEVICAR program was dropped for economic reasons, it was technically successful. In fact, it was recently announced that a similar technology would be used to build a high-speed rail system in China.
Another early technology was the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID), developed for measuring magnetic fields in materials. Today, hospitals use SQUID for evaluating irregular heart beats or irregular brain waves without surgery.
The direction of the lab's work changed dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s to address concerns brought on by the oil crisis, growing environmental movement and more stringent regulatory requirements. To improve fuel economy and significantly reduce emissions, Ford had to redesign every aspect of its vehicles. During this time, the lab introduced the first catalytic converters, electronic engine controls and direct fuel injection. Vehicles went on a diet, shedding more than 1,000 pounds. Even the fuel changed from leaded to unleaded fuels.
All of these advances were made possible by the expertise that existed in Ford's labs. Ford researchers also made pioneering contributions to the world's understanding of ozone and urban smog formation. Ford led the efforts in the industry to eliminate the use of ozone depleting gases in automotive air conditioning systems. Today, more than 50 percent of the lab's research focuses on environmental and societal concerns.
Ford researchers also developed a three-dimensional CAT scan. The scan was originally developed for the nondestructive evaluation of automotive components. Ford researchers worked with Henry Ford Hospital and the University of Michigan using the tool for studying osteoporosis. To develop the three-dimensional images from the x-ray data, a "cone-beam" algorithm was developed by the lab and still is used in three-dimensional systems today.
Over the last decade, the research lab has continued to lead in the development of advanced technologies such as fuel cells, like the P2000, hybrid electric engines and numerous safety technologies. The new Aston Martin Vanquish, for example, is full of powertrain and body structure technologies developed at the lab.
In 1999, Ford research expanded its global reach by opening a state-of-the-art research laboratory in Aachen, Germany.
Ford's research laboratories are a global resource providing core technology to support company initiatives in corporate citizenship, e-commerce, environmental sustainability, safety and customer satisfaction. The VIRTTEX driving simulator laboratory -- the most capable device of its kind currently owned by any automotive manufacturer in North America -- is a full-scale motion-based driving simulator, designed to study driver distraction and optimize the human vehicle interface.
Schmidt said the Research Laboratory's potential for the next 50 years is limitless, as the work there will become more product-driven and consumer-focused. It is an important goal and a major accomplishment for an organization that is so incredibly steeped in tradition and history. One part of Ford Research that is not going to change, however, is the heritage of talented people doing deeply technical work.
"Escalating global competition and changing consumer needs demands that we push even harder to be a leader in technological innovation," Schmidt said. "Ford research labs are embracing these challenges and look toward the future as the ones who will continue to develop innovations that will propel Ford Motor Company into the next 50 years."