WisBusiness: Ford engineer sees potential for Wisconsin manufacturing jobs from hybrid car market

By Matt Dolbey

For WisBusiness.com

A Ford Motor Company executive says a contract for lithium-ion hybrid car batteries will keep engineers in Wisconsin busy for the next five years, but he didn’t know when it would bring manufacturing jobs to the United States.


Robert Iorio, Ford manager of Hybrid Propulsion System Implementation Engineering, said engineers with Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls-Saft are designing new batteries for Ford’s production of plug-in hybrid vehicles. Johnson Controls-Saft recently signed a five-year contract with Ford and has a target of producing 5,000 units a year and will be featured in a line of cars in 2012.


For now, the manufacturing jobs will be in Nersac, France. Iorio said that it’s only a matter of time before manufacturing jobs for hybrid vehicle batteries will come to the United States, as American car companies are moving in that direction.

Iorio made the comments Tuesday in a phone interview while he was visiting the 2009 Greater Milwaukee Auto Show. While news outlets covering the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year reported a depressed mood at the expo, with fewer “goodies” involved, Iorio said he doesn’t see or feel that around the Ford display.


“It’s very similar to previous years. I think it’s very indicative of the position we’re in,” Iorio said, referring to Ford not asking for bailout money from Congress as did General Motors and Chrysler. “It looks great. We have a tremendous amount of product here.”

Iorio said he thinks Ford is in a better place than the other U.S. car manufacturers because it began restructuring a few years ago and developed product plans then. He said when Ford began restructuring, the company was aware a global economic slowdown was on the horizon.


He added this stability helps his team concentrate on its product development.


“I think I would notice it if there were a flurry of changes everyday,” Iorio said. “I don’t see that, and our engineers are focused.”

While focusing on hybrids, Ford and Iorio’s team has been able to cut the costs of the vehicles. Iorio said Ford has been able to cut the costs of producing and selling hybrids since the 2004 Ford Escape, lowering it by 30 percent almost every year. Iorio said it’s obvious the economy has slowed down and “overall, sales are under pressure.” But, he added that, even though sales are down, Ford’s share of sales is increasing, including gains in the Focus, Econoline and Edge models.


Iorio said he sees the demands for hybrids fluctuate with gas prices, but it does appear that they are here to stay.


“It’s been hard for us to supply [hybrids]; dealers always say they want more.”


Iorio said his team, which includes three University of Wisconsin graduates, cuts costs by trying to test as much digitally and at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. When his team remotely tests vehicles, they often drive to their destinations like Florida or Arizona. Iorio said Ford would oftentimes ship the vehicles to the testing locations and fly there in the past.

A plug-in hybrid uses a very large battery that holds a charge lasting about 40 miles. After that, Iorio said the hybrid comes with a gas engine “so you’re not dead in the water” if a driver wants to go more than 40 miles.


Iorio said that the batteries are very durable, lasting 150,000 miles or 10 years.


“We’ve never had a battery replaced yet,” Iorio said.


Iorio, who also worked on F150 pickup trucks at Ford, said that light trucks aren’t moving toward hybridization now, and instead are working on “more standard integration.” This provides the power and towing capabilities while increasing mileage. Iorio said it’s like getting a V6 engine to use the power created by a conventional V8 engine.


“In the near term, [customers] are interested in function. They need to be able to tow, need to be able to use their vehicles,” Iorio said. “And, they are interested in value.”