Jobs with a future Silent revolution

The inexorable advance of digitalization is bringing radical change to the automotive industry as a whole and transforming the job profiles of engineers and IT specialists alike. There is a growing demand for interdisciplinary professionals – not least, to work at ZF.

There’s a small green circuit board sitting on the bench in front of Claudia Hopfensitz. Carefully, she picks up it up. “We’re already doing research into the technologies that will be needed in 15 years’ time,” she says. Born in Mexico, the power electronics specialist is based at ZF’s Corporate Research and Development Center in Friedrichshafen and works on power inverters for hybrid and electric vehicles. “Nowadays, it’s no longer possible for individuals to develop such complex systems on their own,” she insists. “Modern innovations are always the result of collaboration between engineers in different disciplines.”

Connected to the Cloud

Software engineer Volker Vogel developed a Cloud-based driver-assist system for ZF’s concept car, the Advanced Urban Vehicle.

Volker Vogel works on vehicle networking. The software engineer is standing in front of ZF’s concept car, the Advanced Urban Vehicle or AUV, illustrating the benefits of a ZF-developed driver-assist system with the help of a tablet. “Braking normally wastes energy. But with PreVision Cloud Assist, we reduce torque as the vehicle is approaching a bend, causing it to slow down without mechanical braking. This saves energy and also makes the vehicle safer,” explains Vogel. This is possible because the vehicle is connected to the Cloud. During each journey, the driver-assist system collects data on the vehicle’s position, current speed, and lateral and linear acceleration (the forces produced while turning, braking or accelerating), and stores this information in the digital Cloud. Using this data, plus previously uploaded GPS map data, the system can calculate the optimum driving style for each section of the route.

PreVision Cloud Assist is just one of the many innovations to appear in ZF’s Advanced Urban Vehicle, which caused much excitement when it made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2015. By fitting the AUV with electric rear-wheel drive, parking assistance and a smart steering wheel capable of detecting whether or not drivers have their hands on the wheel, the company was able to demonstrate the enormous potential inherent in the intelligent networking of chassis, driveline and driver-assist systems. “Increasingly, mobility will be defined by electrification, digitization, safety and networking,” is how ZF CEO Dr. Stefan Sommer describes this trend. And this is why the company now needs specialists in software and electronics to work alongside the more traditional engineering disciplines.

A team of hardware and software specialists

Engineer Bob Newton has been working on the development of camera systems for 13 years.

Farmington Hills, in the U.S. state of Michigan, is the location of a ZF TRW Electronics Engineering Center. Here, Bob Newton heads the application team working on forward-facing camera systems. The cameras help vehicles avoid collisions, stay in lane and recognize road signs and traffic lights. “Our cameras are crucial components for automated driving; they help make it safer,” says Newton. This is why his team is composed of hardware and software specialists. “My job is a mixture of both,” explains Jacqueline Hu, who collaborates with Newton’s team as a specialist in driver-assist systems and is currently testing how well the camera interacts with software on behalf of a ZF customer.

For CEO Dr. Sommer, this mixture represents one of ZF’s most important and promising strengths. “Our future success lies in the intelligent fusion of mechanical engineering with electronics and digital systems,” he emphasizes. ZF has been building up in-house electronics expertise for years. Onboard functions such as the company’s AKC active rear-axle steering system and CDC adaptive damping system are managed by intelligent electronic control units. Electronics also play a key role in the Car Driveline Technology division – and again, have done for years. Controllers, power electronics and electric motors are all well-established products in the ZF portfolio. Now, with the acquisition of TRW, the company has also acquired electric power steering and braking systems, as well as a cornucopia of sophisticated driver assistance (“driver-assist”) systems.

The ZF TRW product range includes the Safety Domain ECU (SDE), a central control unit capable of processing millions of bytes of data from environmental sensors and analyzing the vehicle’s real-time status as well as the surrounding traffic conditions. ZF also has the perfect solution for customers in need of telematics applications for transferring digital information to and from vehicles, in the form of the company’s independently developed Openmatics platform.

Interdisciplinary specialists of the future

Mechatronics specialist Mathias Döring (right): computers are his most important tools.

Mathias Döring works at the new E-Mobility division’s head office in Schweinfurt. A mechatronics engineer, he studied Engineering IT before embarking on a professional career with ZF. Döring’s job is designing electric motors. This means that he and his department spring into action right at the start of the development process, when a model of the electric motor is required. Computers are his most important tools. “All simulations are run on computer,” he explains. And thanks to new programs and ever more powerful computers, the time required to set up complex simulations is steadily dropping.

Experts like Hopfensitz, Vogel, Newton, Hu and Döring represent a new kind of specialist, possessing a sophisticated combination of skills in mechanical engineering and electronics, as well as in analog and digital working methods. “Job profiles are changing,” explains Martin Frick; as Head of Employer Branding, he is actively seeking out experts with these new profiles. “We need interdisciplinary engineers and IT specialists capable of acting as interpreters between software and hardware,” says Frick. Because the labor market is not delivering enough cross-disciplinary specialists, ZF now relies on its own educational initiatives – such as the work-study program – to train up new recruits, and awards bursaries to experienced employees who continue to train alongside their full-time jobs. “Skilled workers are the key to business success in the digitized world,” confirms Frick.

Further related articles