- Taking your work home has a new meaning in the COVID-19 era, and for OEM engineers, it has both positive and negative aspects.
- The commute is a lot shorter, obviously, but you then can’t walk down the hall to talk to a colleague, so some work days are actually longer.
- Mercedes-Benz R&D thinks some of its WFH tools will make in-person engineering more efficient when that becomes possible again.
As COVID-19 stalled new vehicle production and quieted car sales, home workplaces and Zoom meetings stepped in to keep future vehicles from being delayed. Carmakers have gone to different lengths to keep engineering work on track, and if there’s an upside to working from home during all of this, it’s that you’re less likely to be late to the office.
That’s the positive take from Kathryn Stark, principal engineer for powertrain calibration at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA) in Redford, Michigan. Since Michigan went into lockdown in the middle of March, Stark—like thousands of automotive engineers—has been working from home.
“It’s much easier to make the early morning meetings,” she told Car and Driver. “That’s the upside. The downside is that every discussion is now in a scheduled meeting format, so my days are long and structured.”
It took a bit of effort to build that structure. Mercedes-Benz allowed her to take home necessary engineering equipment and makes sure she has access to development vehicles at home, if necessary. The new members of Stark’s powertrain calibration team have been getting up to speed on important topics without pesky distractions such as water-cooler chats. “I’m sure that they are getting more information and meetings per week than they ever dreamed they would,” she said.
That team also has access to expanded VPN bandwidth to keep company secrets safe. Exactly what they’re doing to provide extra security, Stark wouldn’t say, but she did call confidentiality the heart of research and development and said that her data remains secure.
That data includes more virtual powertrain simulations than were being done before the lockdown, plus the implementation of “new methods and processes for powertrain work,” Stark said, “as well as preparing for the future for powertrains that are more and more electrified.”
The weeks spent working from home could lead to better results when it is possible to conduct in-person testing again. Stark said she’s been writing data-analysis automation scripts and is excited about the test-result analysis tools that her teammates have been working on while they’ve been spending more time with keyboards than dashboards. “I fully expect [these tools] to maximize team efficiency,” she said, “and speed up our progress when we get access to the test track and dynos again.”
Other automakers have been turning to remote tools to help their R&D teams stay busy as well. Ford engineers, for example, are using virtual-reality headsets at home for collaborative design sessions. The latest toys, however, still can’t alleviate the same problems millions of workers around the globe are facing. Automotive News talked to some engineers who are spending more time working in their home offices than they would at their work desks, since some simple things now take longer. And they can’t just get up and walk over to a colleague to discuss an issue. What used to be a quick chat now needs to be a scheduled call that comes with potential technical issues such as a slow internet, screen-sharing glitches, and other digital mishaps.
At another of Mercedes’s six research and development locations in North America, this one in Sunnyvale, California, Alexander Hilliger von Thile works on hardware and software prototypes for new interaction concepts for the company’s next-generation MBUX infotainment system. A senior manager of user experience and advanced engineering, Hilliger von Thile told C/D the Silicon Valley crowd found it logistically easy to transition to their home offices. It wasn’t without a few hiccups, however.
“It posed a few challenges for team members who require hardware such as development boards,” he said. “We gave them the opportunity to take these home, turning some living rooms into small pre-development labs.”
The personal interactions—and the fun that comes with them—is what ended up being missed, Hilliger von Thile said. So, his team scheduled some non-work times to get together, like Virtual Pizza Days during lunch and happy hours in the evening. MBRDNA even provided online yoga and meditation classes to all of its employees.
Stark found another upside to working from home, along with skipping her commute. Perhaps the most important tool in her at-home work arsenal is her computer, which she called a “workhorse laptop.” It’s more powerful and heavier than your typical laptop due to the processor-intensive programs that she and her team need to run. When she doesn’t leave the house, the computer doesn’t either.
“On a normal day, lugging around a 10-pound laptop might not be ideal, but when working from home, this is a bonus,” she said, adding that it’s not the only cool tool she was allowed to take home. “I have a 5500-pound piece of development equipment sitting in my garage right now.”