How An Indian Immigrant Is Fundamentally Transforming Alabama’s Auto Industry

After close to four decades in the auto industry, including a position running global research for Mercedes-Benz in Germany, Indian immigrant Bharat Balasubramanian, moved to Alabama. Today, he is executive director of the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies at the University of Alabama, an inter-disciplinary research center dedicated to the advancement of vehicle technology. He believes that if the U.S. auto manufacturing is to succeed in the 21st century, industry and academia must learn to collaborate, much like they do in Germany. “The courses here are extremely theoretical,” Balasubramanian explains. “They’re not tuned to what the industry needs.”

Balasubramanian has this perspective because as an immigrant, he was fortunate enough to work for many years on the international stage. Born and raised in India, he graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay with a degree in mechanical engineering. He followed his passion for German cars directly into an internship with Daimler AG in Stuttgart. While working, he earned a PhD, and at age 46 he became the first non-German in company history to head a core division as vice-president.

At Mercedes, Balasubramanian says his foreign background helped him interface extremely well with manufacturing and sales abroad. In 1997, the company became the first foreign carmaker to open a plant in the Southeastern United States. Now 300,000 units a year roll off the line in Vance, Ala., including every E-class and S-class SUV sold globally. Other foreign automakers followed—setting up facilities in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In Alabama alone, car-manufacturing facilities produced a record 1 million automobiles in 2015, providing the state with $7 billion worth of export dollars.

Balasubramanian spent 38 years with Mercedes’ parent company Daimler AG in Germany, including 15 years as a vice-president of research and development. As he was nearing retirement, however, he kept hearing from colleagues in Alabama that there was a challenge in the United States: Schools were not producing workers qualified for the manufacturing positions or the senior-level engineering jobs at Mercedes-Benz’s sprawling facility in Alabama. So after retiring, he accepted a job at the University of Alabama to teach engineering and help advance industry research there.

There is very little advanced problem-solving capability here.

Upon arrival, Balasubramanian found that 95 percent of the engineering faculty had no industry experience. In Germany, graduate students work while completing their studies, tailoring research to meet exact industry needs. At the same time, industry executives donate time to universities. “It is considered a service,” he explains. The cross-exposure improves manufacturing capabilities. “That’s part of the reason the United States is losing its manufacturing industry. For me, it’s really shocking to see there’s hardly anything that’s manufactured in the United States that is designed here. That is not the case in Europe.”

And so at the University of Alabama, Balasubramanian has created an exchange program to send American scholars to learn in German automotive facilities, and he is continually helping transfer classroom theory to industry applications in Alabama. “I try to make it a point that the PhDs are here to independently solve challenging problems using scientific principles,” he says. Currently, foreign plants operating in the United States reach out to parent companies “back home” to resolve those issues. “There is very little advanced problem-solving capability here.” If Balasubramanian has his way, he’ll help change that.

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