FCA Canadian R&D Hub opens its doors
The Automotive Research and Development Centre works on testing and design of new products two and three years out.
WINDSOR, ON: The Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Automotive Research and Development Centre (ARDC) is the crown jewel in FCA’s global product strategy.
Opened in May 1996 in Windsor, it plays a direct role in the design and engineering of nearly every vehicle in the brand’s portfolio — from Chrysler and Dodge to Jeep, Ram, Fiat and Alfa Romeo.
But it’s more than that.
ARDC was a first of its kind coming together of academia and industry in a partnership with the University of Windsor.
Besides its 180 employees, it also provides real life experience to student engineers.
Started with an initial $30 million investment ARDC/FCA has since exceeded an estimated $1 billion in research and development.
Since the initial founding with the University of Windsor, the program has now expended to include McMaster University in Hamilton, the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Universite de Sherbrooke in Quebec and Politecnico di Torino in Torino, Italy.
Antonio (Tony) Mancina, has been Director of Canadian Engineering at the ARDC since 2009, overseeing a 215,000 sq. ft. facility on 23 acres that hosts a road test simulation lab, seat development lab, engineering systems development lab, chassis/brake development lab, steering systems and hardware lab and garage and vehicle recycling and corrosion tear-down labs.
Recently he hosted a tour of ARDC for a group of Canadian autowriters, most of whom had never seen it before.
Mancina said most of the 180 employees were engineers. All have a minimum Bachelor, with many Master and PhD advanced degrees. The workforce also has a large representation of experimental mechanics or technicians that are Class A Mechanics who hold an alternative fuels designation and automotive systems certification.
There are about 35 undergraduates at any given and more than 500 have been through ARDC.
“All of our students are generally passionate about cars and trucks and they bring with them an eagerness to learn as well as a youthful energy that inspires and reminds us all of how much fun it is to work in the automotive industry,” Mancina said.
“They also represent a younger generation of vehicle buyers that have new ideas, perspectives and must-have expectations.
“We benefit from that perspective when conducting our work, while the students benefit from real world engineering experience at our facility.”
Just how much input ARDC has on FCA products was seen by a new Ram 1500 pickup truck with no less than 13 systems that had been tested at ARDC, ranging from the rear axle to the suspension, body and frame and steering.
We saw it in the Vehicle Structural Development Laboratory with six Road Simulation Development cells that perform durability tests on the entire truck or car with test runs adding up to 150,000 customer equivalent miles or 10 years of service.
One of the more interesting aspects was the Vehicle Recycling Laboratory, set up as far back of 1999, with the role of recycling components at end-of-life.
ARDC works on multiple programs all of which can take different time scales to complete.
“All projects present their own challenges, requiring innovation and sometimes invention to complete,” Mancina said. “There is very little routine when providing solutions to our daily challenges.
“One of the areas that has evolved the most in our last 20 years has been a shift to collecting data from virtual tests, compared with real-world testing, which is much more controlled and accurate for the company, while providing significant savings in time and resources.”
I asked Mancina if there had ever been an “Eureka” moment.
“We like to call our ‘Eureka’ moments, ‘innovations’,” he said. “As odd as it may sound, it’s the behind-the-scenes innovations – like quiet brake operation or the comfortable, supportive seats we’re honing in our labs – that we’re particularly proud of.
“These are typically facets of a vehicle the general consumer might not notice, but they are key contributors to the overall, long-term enjoyment and satisfaction we hope they have with their FCA product.”
And the work never stops, as the pace of technology and customer demands are constantly changing and ARDC has to be ready to design and test the components and systems of the future.
“Our ongoing biggest challenge is maintaining a workforce that is dialed-in and prepared to respond to market changes at a rapid pace,” Mancina said.
“Technology cycles change much quicker than in the past, when OEMs would dictate to the consumer what to drive. Today, that mindset is no longer valid.
“High technology disruptors, (including some outside of the automotive field), as well as educated, connected consumers are steering the demand alongside increasing regulations, the trend towards electrification, autonomous driving, connected vehicles and more.”
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