Jobs with a future Researching tomorrow’s drivelines

Power electronics engineer Claudia Hopfensitz is developing components for use in the electric and hybrid cars of the future.

When you’re trying to fulfil customers’ demanding requirements for electric motors, the journey can be a long one. They must perform to spec – there’s no room for error. This is what Claudia Hopfensitz is working on at ZF’s Corporate Research and Development Center in Friedrichshafen.

The tools available to Claudia Hopfensitz range from her computer to the soldering iron she uses on circuit boards.

She knows all about long journeys. To work for ZF, the 30-year-old power electronics engineer left home and moved several thousand miles away to Lake Constance in southern Germany. Although her name doesn’t give you much of a hint, Claudia Hopfensitz is Mexican by birth. Her parents are both lawyers.

“When he was younger, my father loved to tinker with cars and did almost everything himself,” says Hopfensitz. He liked the idea of his daughter choosing a technical career. She decided to study Engineering, specializing in electronics. After completing her undergraduate studies in Guadalajara, she earned her Master’s degree at Kempten University of Applied Sciences in Swabia. Why Germany? “Because this is where the best cars come from,” she says. “Everyone in Mexico knows that.”

Father inspired ZF application

And why did she opt for a career at ZF after graduating? “My father was partly responsible for that, too. When I was still a kid, he used to tell me: ZF transmissions are the best!” But the challenges associated with power electronics were another reason for her decision. “I work on the development of components we’ll be using in the electric and hybrid cars of the future,” explains Hopfensitz.

The field she works in is broad, and there’s plenty to keep her interested. Customers expect the power modules that convert the energy from electric-vehicle batteries into tractive power to last at least 15 years without interruption. And autonomous driving, the ultimate aim of automakers around the world, is “making things even more complicated,” says the power electronics expert. “Cars must learn to think more and more like people.”

Video: Young team, major challenges – Claudia Hopfensitz explains what makes her job as a power electronics engineer so special.

The challenge of heat generation

Hopfensitz and her colleagues primarily work on hardware. She refines the control systems that convert the direct current supplied by batteries into the alternating current required by electric motors. One of the main challenges is the enormous heat that is generated. “Higher performance means more power,” explains the engineer. And that flows through the semiconductors, “the heart of the system”. Which heat up to 150 degrees Celsius. “This energy remains in the device and heats up the whole system – so we have to install some kind of cooling.” But with very little space available, there’s also a risk of fire, which must be averted at all costs.

Naturally enough, Claudia Hopfensitz spends most of her research time in front of her computer. But when the software developers next door think up new ways to stress the hardware, she goes to work on the circuit boards. In her hand is a soldering iron – far from obsolete, even in this era of digitization and Big Data. Claudia Hopfensitz uses it just as deftly as she she uses her keyboard and mouse.

The safe, sure way to automated driving

Bob Newton works at the ZF TRW Farmington Hills facility in the U.S. state of Michigan, developing forward-facing camera systems.

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