Tomorrow's automobile: Grand Rapids is shaping the future of transportation in the United States

While Grand Rapids may be known for its furniture or beer, there's another major part of this city's economy that's growing: the automotive industry. The region boasts companies and leaders in the field who are forever changing the way we drive cars in the United States.

Grand Rapids may have made a name for itself years ago in furniture, but today there's an equally impressive technological revolution happening on its streets.


It's been over a century since vulcanized rubber tires and a combustion engine were first married in a mercurial steel chassis and propelled up Fulton Avenue. Since then, our city has developed more than just a love of the automobile, but a substantial dependence upon it. From the outline of the expressways that demarcate greater Grand Rapids, to the convenience of drive-thru fast food, to outdoor advertising, and even urban architecture, there is seemingly no area of the American experience--let alone that in West Michigan--that's gone unaffected by motorized vehicles. If anything, our affinity for automobiles has only increased.


Today, Grand Rapids boasts a number of companies and groups paving the way for further innovation. According to The Right Place, an organization that works to foster and support a local economy in West Michigan, the greater Grand Rapids area ranks sixth in United States for jobs created in the automotive industry, and can now attribute more than 15 percent of its economy to manufacturing, much of it in the automotive sector.


The West Michigan Automotive Suppliers Symposium, a collection of industry leaders from the region brought together by The Right Place, meets regularly to discuss where the future of the auto industry will bring our community. The group carries tremendous magnitude in the industry and exemplifies the role the automobile plays in the region.


West Michigan's automotive manufacturers and designers make up some of the most advanced corporations and institutions in the region. With names that dominate the automotive industry, like Faurecia, Lacks, Gentex, and a number of schools and universities, there is no lack of talent and resources for those mapping out our transportation future.


Some day soon, drivers in Grand Rapids may be sitting at home while their vehicles do the work. Or perhaps the vehicles they do operate will move swiftly and silently, drawing on near infinite stores of clean energy. Automobile safety will undoubtedly be improved through advancements in materials and metallurgy, but the technology to allow a network of vehicles to communicate and avoid collision could eliminate accidents outright.




A 2016 report by the automotive and assembly researchers at McKinsey & Company lists four "disruptive technology-driven trends" that are pushing the automotive sector forward: connectivity, driverless vehicles, diverse mobility, and battery power. Several of the devices crucial to these four areas are manufactured here in West Michigan, and the others are being demonstrated on a daily basis along its infrastructure.


Grand Rapids native Garry VanHouten is the Director of Advanced Technology at Lacks Enterprises, where trim systems, plastic plating, and other automotive flourishes and components are designed, tested and manufactured. While the capabilities and products found in the workspaces VanHouten oversees have advanced dramatically since he first joined the field, much of the process has stayed the same.


VanHouten began his career in automotive design in the early 70s, a time of mylar, drafting tables, duplicators, and rotating drum fax machines. Before long, those innovations would be replaced and enhanced by computer aided design, virtual simulations, email attachments, and camera phones.


"The new communications technology does save some time driving to meet with a customer, supplier or colleague," VanHouten says. "While the face-to-face human interaction is still important in some circumstances, so you need to balance that."

Garry VanHouten

Face-to-face is a wonderfully efficient way for humans to work, but for modern automobiles, a simple network link will do. It's impressive what such a link is capable of supporting, too. When Phil Abram, Executive Director of General Motors’ Connected Products and Strategy division, based in Warren, Michigan, announced the latest iteration of OnStar, a factory-installed connection service focused on mitigating emergency, safety, and navigational issues, along with providing diagnostical information to drivers in real time. It’s one of the first examples of the Internet of Things, a network of connected machines, coming to automobiles. Paired with the capacity of IBM's Watson, the tech firm’s proprietary artificial intelligence, built on answering questions in natural language, GM launched the world's first cognitive mobility platform last October, and a new era in intelligent driving was launched.


So far, ExxonMobil, Glympse, iHeartRadio, MasterCard, and Parkopedia have become partners in the new technology, which could direct a driver who is low on fuel to the nearest gas station, map out arrival times with friends, play their favorite music, and even make purchases, all from the front seat.


“On average, people in the U.S. spend more than 46 minutes per day in their car and are looking for ways to optimize their time,” Abram explains in a prepared statement. “By leveraging OnStar’s connectivity and combining it with the power of Watson, we’re looking to provide safer, simpler and better solutions to make our customers’ mobility experience more valuable and productive.”




In a sense, the automobile is evolving into a motorized extension of our smart mobile devices, in turn an extension of our own imagination and technological mastery. All of these innovations, of course, would fall flat were it not for the dedication to process by leaders in the field like VanHouten.


The six-step method VanHouten has applied to his work at Lacks is just as relevant in any other field demanding quantitative results:

  1. Define the problem: Establish clear guidelines for the issue's symptoms and importance.

  2. Identify the root cause of the problem: Organize a team to investigate and redefine the problem if necessary.

  3. Generate a fishbone: Chart out solutions, alternative solutions and alternatives to those alternatives.

  4. Develop a plan: Pick a solution to follow.

  5. Run trials and analyze results: Implement that solution, and if it doesn't work, "go fish," VanHouten says. It's back to the fishbone to try another solution.

  6. The ideal result is a permanent fix, and the crew can move on to solving another problem.


This process has helped VanHouten overcome a number of challenges in the automotive industry, not the least of which, in his line of work, have been metallurgical. Whether working with aluminum, steel, galvanized thermoplastics, VanHouten and his engineers will draw on all the data they can gather to understand how the materials will behave after 100,000 miles are put on them. The company has produced more than 30 million wheels since it began operations in 1961.


"We had a particular challenge. We selected a small team of three people, used a documented problem solving method and worked the issues," he says. "There were multiple trial and error experimentations, and in many cases we learned what didn’t work and that sent us in other directions."


As most proprietary alloy formulas are kept secret under contractual obligation, VanHouten isn't going into too much detail, but to the benefit of both Lacks and modern motorists, the six-step method has proven fruitful time and again for his engineering teams. It’s even assisted him and others at Lacks in writing a number of patents on different automotive components.


"We kept open minds, used the internet for research, talked with experts in their respective fields of expertise, reviewed the data collected and worked through next steps together," he says. "The project was successful, and we were appreciative of the time and funding we were provided to work on that challenge."




VanHouten’s first automobile, a sturdy blue pickup with a three speed stick shift on the steering column, may have gotten him around town, but it was his father who had the biggest influence on his career. An “excellent role model,” VanHouten says, his father encouraged him to spend his summers working on the farm in Grand Rapids once he turned 12. For the next six years, if he wasn’t working on the VanHouten farm, he was mowing lawns or shoveling snow for extra money.


“When having a conversation with my father, if I were to say ‘I can’t do that,’ he’d respond with, ‘There is no such word as can’t.’ Another one of his sayings was, ‘First you have to learn how to work and the rest comes easy.’”


VanHouten took his father’s words to heart, and after his service in the U.S. Navy, followed by a stint with another automotive supplier, joined Lacks. Today, as Director of Advanced Technology, he tackles his work with the same fervor as new challenges present further need for disruption and testing.


If West Michigan is going to keep up with the rest of the automotive industry, that fervor will need to meet the pace of technological change, bringing with it the challenges and opportunities of automated, connected and autonomous vehicles in a global community. According to Kevin Kerrigan, Senior Vice President in the Automotive Office of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, there are new ideas and ways to think about autonomous vehicles and the deployment of these technologies being discovered nearly every day.


Kevin Kerrigan“This is exciting to me because it is a time of change, and no one has a complete understanding of what tomorrow will bring,” says Kerrigan, who is based out of Lansing. “Michigan is taking the lead role in this dynamic space.”


Much like VanHouten, Kerrigan says there have been massive changes in the automotive industry since he first joined. He worked on designing his first automobile before computers were widely used in the process, sketching drafts out on a 16-foot-long drawing table by hand.


“The fact is that communication on all levels has advanced over the past 40 years. I do miss the carrier pigeons though.”




Kerrigan spends most of his time working with business development and marketing teams at the MEDC and traveling through Europe and Asia spreading the message about Michigan and its connection to mobility, inviting companies to set up in Michigan, form joint ventures, and to invest in a variety of ways in the state. He notes that technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace throughout the world, and companies are spending more time and money on making sure they are in step with the changes.


“Not paying attention to technological change can be devastating when your competition demonstrates that they have taken the lead,” Kerrigan says. “As the automotive industry continues its ongoing process of globalization, companies are no longer able to stay in their comfort zone of supplying only to the U.S. market.”


Original equipment manufacturers are now looking for the resources to build their products around the globe, and the MEDC is putting support behind any foreign company willing to invest in the state. Kerrigan says this indicates a change in the industry. Where once the inner workings of each automotive manufacturers’ plans were under Secret Service level security, now the field has opened up to new ideas. It was all many could do after the industry downturn in 2008 and 2009.


But our region has bounced back--and more, he says.


“I think almost every area of the industry has recovered and is in now more robust than ever before,” Kerrigan says. “ Michigan truly is the comeback state and continues to excel in every way.”


The automotive industry relies on manufacturers, designers, scientists, and technicians, each bringing to the table a vastly different set of resources, but uniting under the same love of motorized freedom that those in West Michigan have embraced for generations.


A distance from the tire plants on the east side of the state, Lacks Enterprises is designing and rolling out rims and new interior finishes in West Michigan. Engines are being built throughout the state, but many of them will be powered by the technology researched by Johnson Controls, in Holland. And when the industry calls for more talent, students in the advanced automotive department at Grand Rapids Community College will be available to work.


There is no denying West Michigan has benefited tremendously from the automotive revolution, and yet continues to do so. The only question is, where will it drive us next?

This is part of a 12-article series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see previous articles in this series, please go here. With this series, Rapid Growth will delve into the question: What are businesses and organizations doing to leverage technological advances to create an impact within our region, and what are the stories behind these agents of sweeping change in our society? This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies(OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.

Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.