The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Calvin College
"The work that I'm doing
is very, very exciting," Anna Greidanus-Probes told me in a hushed voice.
"A lot of what goes on here is extremely secretive. I think you'll want
to make this a feature story."
I hadn't expected this dramatic response when I picked up the phone to arrange an interview with Professor Greidanus-Probes. My assignment was to write a short piece on her externship at Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI) in Holland, Michigan. The assignment grew into this full-length story.
Greidanus-Probes, an art professor, spent the spring semester of 2000 at the former Prince Corporation, the Holland facility of international car-interior design and manufacturing corporation Johnson Controls, Inc. Her "externship"-an opportunity to connect classroom theory with the business world-was sponsored by the Spoelhof Institute for Christian Leadership in Business.
Greidanus-Probes was the first participant in the new externship program, which places Calvin faculty members in for-profit business establishments for up to five months to gain first-hand experience in current business practices.
Greidanus-Probes (henceforth referred to as Anna) worked long hours in Studio Zero, a wing of Johnson Controls where designers brainstorm concepts for car interior parts five to ten years in the future. She learned much about the world of industrial design, and she was encouraged:
"There is a real future for people who are image-makers and have the skills to build and construct. Students with fine arts degrees may find surprising opportunities for employment beyond working as individual studio artists."
Anna invited me to tour Johnson Controls to get a better picture of those "surprising opportunities." We began the tour at Studio Zero.
Anna swiped her pass card through a slide reader, and the glass doors opened.
At first glance, Studio Zero seemed to be a typical office, full of desks, chairs, computers and filing cabinets. But a second glance revealed a host of charts and diagrams displayed on the walls and display boardstoo many to take in.
Next to Anna's desk, I noticed an odd-looking automobile seat; odd, because fastened to the back of the seat was a green Lego baseboard.
I asked about the seat, and Anna explained that it was a completed product of Johnson Controls, due to appear in the newest vehicle models. The middle of a vehicle's rear seat will fold forward to become a Lego play center, complete with a storage kit full of Lego pieces.
A Lego play center for the car (or van, or SUV) may seem like a frillbut such extras are mandatory in the competitive world of car manufacturing, Anna told me.
Looking around, I noticed Anna's colleagues drawing or contemplating the drawings in front of them. No one was talking on the phone, as in many offices. Some were talking to each other. One man was using a computer pen to "draw"on his screen.
Anna introduced me to a colleague, John Ickes, whose title is "Senior Designer." I asked him what he likes about his job.
"I like the satisfaction that I get from creating things that I later see in the marketplace," John told me. "I actually get to think of things that people can use." He quite apparently had a real love for his work.
Next we entered the "studio modeling area."
"When a project gets to a certain stage, you want a three dimensional model. Sometimes, you don't really know how your idea is going to work until you see it in 3-D," Anna said.
The modelers use gray foam to build most of their models. We examined a complex model of a seat's interior structure made entirely of the strange foam material. Sometimes clay is used instead, Anna told me.
The two of us went on into a meeting area, where complex diagrams were displayed on wallboards. In this area, project teams collaborate on various steps of the design process: research, ideation, visualization and critique, I learned.
Studio Zero is focused on using new technology to full advantage, Anna explained. "We look at technology and try to envision how technology can serve us constructively in the future."
Anna found that coming from a liberal arts college gave her a fresh point of view in the critiquing process.
"We shared the common language of design, but we had very different perspectives," she said. "Coming from a liberal arts perspective, I raised questions relating to a broader context."
One project she worked on was the future version of a thin, high-resolution screen that slides out when rear-seat passengers want to watch a DVD movie, play a videogame or, perhaps in the future, visit the Internet. Preliminary versions of this technology, designed by JCI, are currently being offered to car manufacturers.
Anna later shared examples of the kinds of questions she would raise in critiquing sessions: "Why bring more entertainment to children? Is the car a place for family dialogue, or do we plunk the kids in front of a screen once again?"
Calvin College students must be "equipped to interpret and work with images. It will enhance their whole ability to communicate information," she said. She applauds the "rare pre-med student" who signs up for a figure-drawing class; she believes that design comprehension is an increasingly critical skill.
I got a glimpse of numerous other car-interior "extras" poised to become "must-haves": a built-in recording system for making verbal memos while driving, a complex storage system for the rear of a van, and a remote control built into the sun visor that can be programmed to open the garage door, unlock the front door and turn on the lights in the house.
We left Studio Zero and looked at another step in the process of making car interiors: validation. Validation means testing the sturdiness and durability of a specific car component. We watched a machine flip a visor up and down, up and down. Workers might discover from the machine that, for example, 52,710 flips later the visor's hinges begin to creak. Then someone decides whether or not 52,710 flips is a long enough lifespan for the visor.
Next we enter a human beehive known to Johnson Controls employees as "the People Center." The People Center is a maze of hundreds of identical cubicles, each one belonging to an employee. Here, I am told, Studio Zero's work is transformed into reality. Employees speak to car manufacturers (the customers), presenting the new concepts, negotiating prices and modifying concepts according to expectations. Occasionally, an idea is sent back to Studio Zero for reworking on a customer's behalf. One section of the People Center is the engineering wing of the company, where engineers decide how to mechanically and electronically construct Studio Zero's designs.
Our last stop is the Advanced Composites studio. Anna spent the last weeks of her externship working in Advanced Composite. She chose to stay even after the semester was over because she did not want to miss the opportunity to work in this department. In fact, there are plans to continue her relationship with the studio as an artist and consultant.
Advanced Composites is not exactly a step in the design process; rather, it aids the entire process.
Anna introduced me to David Schwarting, Manager of Advanced Composites. He was a friendly man who was a professional potter before coming to Johnson Controls. David told us that the Advanced Composites department was his idea and grew under his direction.
David's job is to experiment with different materials in order to find the perfect substance for every car interior need imaginable. He also aims to make workers' jobs safer, easier, and more comfortable by inventing and reinventing the corporations' machines.
David told the two of us to feel a small square of metal-like substance with our fingers. "This stuff is seven times stronger than steel," he explained, with excitement in his voice. He keeps a sampling of unusual materials on display in the room next to his office.
David also introduced me to the material most on his mind, one that is presently only used in the aerospace industry. He is trying to gain rights for this spray metal. It sprays in a woven pattern, which increases heat conductivity. The metal would be ideal for giant metal plates used as part of the manufacturing process, he told me. "This could save us 10 to 20 million a year in heating costs!"
The Advanced Composites manager is driven by a desire to always improve: "My theory is that you always have to find another way to do itkeep pushing those limits."
What intrigues Anna about this department, other than the presence of enthusiastic people like David? The materials; she has discovered new malleable substances that she hopes to use in her sculpture classes someday.
After saying goodbye to David, Anna and I zig-zagged down a long hall, almost the entire quarter-mile of the building. We sat at a round table in the center of the spacious main hall to debrief. I had a chance to ask some of the questions I had prepared.
What has Anna gained from working at Johnson Controls? "I've learned a lot to reinforce and extend what I teach in the classroom," she said. "For example, the power of visualization of ideas in two and three dimensions; what I teach in the classroom is really happening in a significant way [at Johnson Controls]."
She also learned the importance of teamwork. "The main thing I did here was collaborate," she explains. "I was a collaborator, bringing my own point of view to the process." Seeing the power of teamwork in the workplace encouraged her to emphasize group work in the classroom.
My most burning question is whether Anna saw collaboration between business and academia as an entirely good thing, or did she become discouraged by the diminishing impact of the lone studio artist?
"If anything, I'm encouraged," she said. The image-making skills she teaches her students through design, drawing and sculpture, have a greater significance in the modern world of manufacturing than she had imagined. In her view, the growing ties between businesses and learning institutions are entirely positive.
Yet these ties are nothing new, Anna hastened to add. "Image-making interfacing with technology is not a new concept. One needs only to look at the historical precedents around the world. For example, the Moche culture of ancient Peru, the Aztecs of Central America, early Arabic culture or, more current in Western history, the artists/scientists of the Renaissance such as Leonardo and many others.
"I see, work and walk on the shoulders of history," she concluded.
Roxanne Van Farowe is a communications and development assistant at SECOM Ministries in Grand Rapids.