By Tom Henderson
Small Times Staff Writer
Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., General Motors’ giant parts supplier spinoff, is expected to announce soon that it has formed a small-tech partnership with Wayne State University in Detroit. The reported deal is part of Delphi’s efforts to expand its nonautomotive business.
Under the plan, approved last month by WSU President Irvin D. Reid, Delphi will move laboratory equipment with a book value
|Two graduate students at work |
in WSU’s clean room.
WSU has hired a contractor to double the size of its clean-room space to 12,000 square feet to accommodate needs of the Delphi contract, according to Greg Auner, director of Wayne State’s Center for Smart Sensors and Integrated Microsystems (CSSIM). Auner said Thursday that work has begun on blueprints and that demolition work will begin in about two weeks.
A spokesperson for Delphi, though, said the company has not formally approved the agreement and a date for an announcement has not been set.
Three Delphi researchers are expected to have the title of adjunct professor. The company is also expected to assign some patents in microsystems to the university. More Delphi researchers are expected to join WSU as adjunct professors as programs ramp up.
“This is a fabulous deal for us,” said Auner. His center has 21 faculty from the colleges of engineering, science and medicine, five staff scientists and engineers, 25 graduate students and 12 undergrads.
Auner said the lab expansion will include a Class 10 clean room of 3,500 square feet. City air typically has one million particles of at least half a micron in size per cubic meter of air; a Class 100 clean room has 100 particles that size. Clean rooms range between Class 10,000, for some fabrication purposes, to Class 1, for growing exotic crystals.
“Delphi doesn’t need a Class 10 clean room. That’ll be for our nanobiological research, but obviously the cleaner the better for Delphi, too,” Auner said.
DRIVING AWAY FROM AUTO
Delphi, which is headquartered in the Detroit suburb of Troy, hopes to leverage WSU’s expertise in research into nonsilicon-based microsystems as part of its efforts to expand its business into nonautomotive applications.
Early in March, Delphi announced that it was consolidating its fledgling nonautomotive operations under a “new markets” division to be headed up by Atul Pasricha, a Delphi and GM veteran.
Delphi announced that the new division, which was created to mitigate the auto industry’s traditional boom-or-bust cycles, would look into such markets as military, aerospace, communications and agriculture. WSU’s microsystems research has applications in all four areas.
Company officials have said they hope nonauto revenues will grow to 5 percent of sales in two years, up from 1.5 percent of 2000’s sales of $29.1 billion.
Delphi researchers say that nonsilicon systems also offer advantages for auto applications because of their ability to function in a far wider range of temperatures than their silicon counterparts.
According to Joe Mantese, group manager for materials at Delphi Research Labs in Shelby Township, the auto supplier had explored partnering with a number of universities, including the University of Michigan’s renowned MEMS engineering group, with which it has worked on a project basis over the years. Delphi decided to pursue an affiliation with WSU because of its expertise in nontraditional materials.
“The word `nonsilicon’ comes up an awful lot with Wayne State,” Mantese said. “We think a lot of U-M, but they are silicon based. That’s not a weakness; that’s a strength. They go with what they know. If we want to address the future in a good way, we need to be more flexible than we have been. We need to look at both silicon and nonsilicon.”
“Nonsilicon offers a broader range of devices for automotive applications, and also for getting into nonautomotive markets,” said Michel Sultan, Delphi’s group manager for devices, who works closely with Mantese. “There are a lot of nonautomotive possibilities in nonsilicon.”
The proposed partnership would expand a relationship that goes back about six years. Delphi has had a handful of WSU’s Ph.D. and masters engineering students working on projects as part of their degree work.
WSU’S CUTTING-EDGE RESEARCH
Auner’s department has several broad-based initiatives in place.
The CSSIM is involved in prototype work on a sensor bra for early detection of breast cancer with the Karmanos Cancer Institute. Lab tests have begun with the Kresge Eye Institute that aims to restore sight to those who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, and another program with Children’s Hospital involves designing sensors that would allow doctors in one location to assist in operations far away.
All three medical institutions are, along with WSU, part of Detroit’s Medical Center.
Auner’s work with biosensors fits in well with a mandate from Delphi’s chief executive, J.T. Battenberg, to branch into nonauto markets, said Mantese. “Battenberg wants us to be more than just an automotive company. We’re not going to turn into a nonautomotive company, and change isn’t going to come overnight.”
The new partnership with WSU could help the push into aerospace, too. In July, two nonsilicon sensors developed by WSU are scheduled to rocket into space in a Boeing satellite carried aloft by the space shuttle. They are to remain in space for three years of testing.
One is called a solar-blind imaging sensor. Certain narrow wavelengths of light from the sun are absorbed by ozone and are invisible on earth. Sensors operating in that wavelength would be useful in detecting enemy aircraft or missile launches.
The other is a hydrogen sensor, which could be used to detect and pinpoint potentially dangerous hydrogen leaks on manned spacecraft.
Both sensors are made of aluminum nitride, a semiconductor material that Auner and his staff have developed an expertise in growing.
On earth, the hydrogen sensor could be used in vehicle fuel cells for monitoring and controlling hydrogen production. With fuel cells expected by some to be huge part of the auto-supply market in the not-so-distant future, a hydrogen sensor clearly has an attraction for Delphi and other parts suppliers.
“If you envision fuel cells to be huge — and I do — then this is very, very important,” said Auner.
A SIGN OF THE TIMES
Delphi’s innovative partnership with WSU — and the push toward nontraditional materials — is indicative, say Mantese and Sultan, of the freedom to think outside the box that has been encouraged at the parts supplier since it was spun off from the more staid GM.
“We take risks with the research we do,” Sultan said. “Some programs will make it. Some won’t.”
“We are the children of our parents,” Mantese said, “but Delphi really wants to push the risk-taking. We have a Hall of Fame here, where we put up the pictures of inventors who hold patents. Delphi has gone out of the way to reward invention. Much more so than GM. Battenberg wants us to take risks.”
Regarding the Wayne State partnership, the point, Mantese said, is “instead of being evolutionary, invest in the revolutionary.”
CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Tom Henderson at email@example.com or call 734-994-1106, ext. 233.
COVER PHOTO: Greg Auner, director of Wayne State’s Center for Smart Sensors and Integrated Microsystems, with Delphi research associate Margarita Thompson, one of his former doctoral students. Courtesy Wayne State University.