An Interview With
Senior Vice President
Development Passenger Cars
E and S-Class Section
When Mercedes recruits engineers, it first and foremost looks for individuals who have a good basic knowledge of engineering and science. But new engineers today also need a background in modeling and simulation, some knowledge of electronics, and familiarity with information technology.
Mercedes now employs about 5,000 design engineers and related technical personnel. Of those, about 500 worked on the S Class. The development organization was structured as a platform team with some help from functional groups for major parts of the vehicle such as the drive train, engine, and chassis. Although we used a team structure, the organizational approach to developing the S Class can’t really be called concurrent engineering.
Nevertheless, engineers who work in modern industry must be flexible people who have the ability to work effectively in small groups. Compared to practices of a decade ago, there is much more cooperation at the project level in developing new vehicles. That means that engineers need well-developed personal qualities to work efficiently in this sort of environment.
Engineers who designed vehicles fifteen years ago, for example, first prepared drawings and then built physical prototypes. The prototypes served to hammer out aspects of the design that weren’t determined within the initial drawings. Today, engineers design primarily with CAD and build many virtual prototypes to refine their concepts. They use physical prototypes for informational purposes only. This is one reason why the new S Class took only about four years to go from first sketches to production, a shorter schedule than in previous efforts. It will take even less time for future efforts to reach the market.
Though some writers have criticized recent university graduates for what might be called intellectual shortcomings, we have not found this to be the case among engineers who we hire. We don’t see anything wrong with the caliber of engineers coming out of school. The basic education of engineers has changed, however. Engineering education once was more heavily oriented toward mathematics. University courses now put more emphasis on simulation because of the way computing facilities have improved in recent years. Course work has evolved to reflect what engineers need to know so they can work in industry as it is today.
The main problem we see is that there just aren’t enough new engineers, particularly in electrical and electronics disciplines. The number of engineering students at the University of Stuttgart, for example, has dropped significantly in the last few years. This drop might be due to the difficulty in finding engineering positions some years back. Adverse economic conditions tended to depress enrollments and has resulted in an engineering scarcity today.
Although formal education is certainly important, Mercedes engineers also learn by doing. We’ve taken this concept one step further by swapping engineers for a time with our major suppliers so we can gain new skills from each other. We’ve traded engineers with Motorola, for instance, while developing a new phone system.
Hermann Gaus is the chief engineer at Daimler-Benz (now Daimler Chrysler) in Stuttgart, Germany. He was in charge of the automaker’s new top-end S Class Mercedes which recently debuted at the Paris Auto Show.