Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 15, 2014

Purdue, Chrysler forge next chapter

Carmaker funding seven all-new research projects

By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Purdue students are arriving in Chrysler Group LLC’s Kokomo plants with ideas on reducing noise vibrations, improving the life of die sets, and new testing methods for welds.

Kokomo-area Chrysler workers are moving the opposite way down Ind. 26, heading to meetings with Purdue faculty and students in West Lafayette.

This week, the company and the university announced the latest installment in an ongoing partnership, a partnership Chrysler is now funding with $1.2 million for seven specific projects.

The projects, aimed at improving manufacturing processes at Kokomo Chrysler plants, come on top of internship and co-op programs for Purdue students at Chrysler Group facilities in Kokomo and worldwide, and distance-education programs for the company’s global employees.

“Turning Purdue’s research and teaching into more and better jobs is the purest form of the land-grant duty to be actively engaged with our state and its economy,” Purdue President Mitch Daniels said in a release Wednesday. “We are excited about the new Chrysler relationship and see it as a prototype for many such partnerships to come.”

Internships, faculty visits to plants, visits by Chrysler employees to West Lafayette, and serious high-end research are all expected to be facets of the partnership as it continues to unfold.

Purdue’s colleges of engineering and technology, and faculty from the colleges of science, agriculture and the Krannert School of Management have all participated in laying the groundwork for the program, which Purdue officials say is well underway.

The big announcement this week centered around Chrysler’s investment in the specific research projects, which bear titles such as “High Pressure Die Cast Process Optimization” and “Laser Cladding and Surface Treatment for Increased Die Life.” Purdue faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students are already hard at work on each project, laboring alongside Chrysler plant staff.

Purdue’s chief global affairs officer, Suresh Garimella, said the projects will expand to include Chrysler Group’s new facility in Tipton as well as the Kokomo and Tipton communities. Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight has also been a participant in the partnership talks, Garimella said.

The partnership was hatched about two years ago from discussions between Brian Harlow, Chrysler’s head of NAFTA powertrain manufacturing, and Garimella, who Harlow met at meetings of the Indiana Automotive Council. The council is part of Conexus Indiana, an advocacy group for the state’s advanced manufacturing and logistics industries.

Garimella couldn’t say enough about Harlow’s contribution, calling the Tipton County resident a “big Kokomo enthusiast.”

From a decision last year to bring in Purdue landscaping architecture students to design spaces around the Tipton Transmission Plant, to being a booster for the area, Harlow has made an impact, Garimella said.

“Truly, in my mind, [Harlow is] trying to make Kokomo a better place,” Garimella said. “He’s been instrumental in the growth of Chrysler in Kokomo.”

Chrysler workers tend to share the affinity for Harlow, who played a key role in convincing Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne to build the new wave of 8-speed and 9-speed transmissions in Kokomo, rather than outsourcing the work to an original equipment manufacturer.

That decision not only saved more than 3,000 jobs at the Kokomo plants, but it also paved the way for a new wave of around 2,000 Chrysler local hires.

Harlow praised the partnership in Purdue’s release.

“Not only will we benefit from having access to a top engineering and research university, but we also will be able to give students real-life work experiences and develop the skills that companies like Chrysler will need in the future. This partnership demonstrates what is possible when education and industry come together,” he said.

Garimella said Chrysler officials are particularly excited about Purdue’s already established distance learning technology.

A big part of the Marchionne-led transformation has involved a commitment to a benchmarking and metrics-based system of management called World Class Manufacturing, and Chrysler employees are already engaged in distance learning between local plant sites and Chrysler’s WCM Academy in Warren, Mich.

The Purdue partnership could very well expand what Chrysler does in those areas, not only in North America, but worldwide, Garimella said.

“Because Chrysler — and Fiat — is all over the world, we think there’s a great potential for the things that we do here at Purdue to be available, all over the world, at Chrysler,” he said.

Garimella said Purdue’s aim in fostering partnerships with Chrysler and other companies is to become a comprehensive, strategic partner. The collaboration is about much more than summer internships for students, although that very well could be a component of the partnership. Rather, Purdue is seeking engagement with Chrysler “along a broad range of connections,” he added.

“If we can help Chrysler in a broad variety of ways, it will be a success,” he said.

Scott Smith is on Twitter @JasonSSmith1 and can be emailed at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com