April 01, 2015
Jenn Baugher hopes to ignite change in the auto industry
By Julie Troha
In recent years, industry writers have celebrated the changing face of the automotive industry. But reports have focused less on the changing faces of its product teams. Behind the scenes, young designers are bringing fresh perspectives and increased diversity to the American transportation industry. One of them is Jenn Baugher, a senior in the Industrial Design program at CIA.
For her BFA thesis exhibition, Baugher is tackling the challenge of designing an affordable, entry-level sports car. She explains that a key factor that has historically driven up price is carbon fiber. That’s the expensive material that designers use to construct cars that are lightweight, fast, and fun to drive.
“I wanted to look at different ways to get that lightweight power-to-weight ratio out of a car using alternative materials,” said Baugher. She landed on a material from an unexpected source: Nike.
The sports gear manufacturer recently pioneered a new technology called Flyknit. Baugher describes it as a three-dimensional loom that weaves a shoe in one piece out of strands of composite fiber. “The traditional way they build a shoe is in pieces and then they sew it together,” explained Baugher. “That’s kind of like a car, where they have a frame and they put pieces of body paneling on it.” She’s exploring how to adapt the 3D technology for the car industry. The process could exploit lower-cost materials while reducing tooling costs and material waste.
The advantage of Baugher’s design isn’t just the lower price point. “It creates a completely new look,” said Dan Cuffaro, chair of CIA’s Industrial Design program. He noted her work focuses on utility in a way that’s “all about the driver and what they need, not the stereotypical performance machine.” He praised Baugher’s approach of wrapping sheet metal body panels with fabric, because it “lightens the body and results in new interaction between driver and vehicle.”
Baugher has been interested in designing cars since she got her driver’s license. But that interest is still relatively rare among teenage girls. “We’re constantly fighting that societal stereotype that when you think of a scientist, a doctor, an engineer, you’re not thinking of a woman,” said Yvonne Schiffer, a teacher at the all-girls Beaumont High School who recently brought her students to CIA’s Automotive Design Symposium at the Cleveland Auto Show.
To help her students imagine themselves in careers that have been male dominated, Schiffer, a former Ford engineer, teamed up with Gretchen Santo, director of Beaumont’s academic scholars program, to start a robotics team. In its first year, the team placed second in the region. The following year they won a regional competition and placed third in a national competition.
“The really wonderful thing is that as we drove back home, the three girls said at first they didn’t even notice that something like 98 percent of the competitors were male,” said Santo. “But it didn’t bother them at all. And they hope in their future careers to help correct that balance.”
Baugher agrees that getting girls interested in engineering and industrial design is key to bringing balance into today’s automotive workforce. She and Cuffaro both point out that while women purchase more than half of all cars, they still represent a very small portion of automotive designers.
“I’ve had conversations with people in the industry, and they want to hire more women because they recognize that their target demographic is representational of that,” said Baugher. “But even though the opportunities are perfectly open and equal, there just aren’t a lot of female candidates.” She’s interested in finding ways to overcome the subtle cultural messages that this type of design is for men, and to interest more women in an industry that’s actively recruiting them.
One of those opportunities came when Baugher gave the student presentation at last year’s Automotive Design Symposium. She shared some of the projects in her portfolio, giving high school students – including Schiffer’s – a taste of the type of work they could expect to do in the field. Schiffer’s pre-engineering class from Beaumont ate it up. “My kids wouldn’t know this kind of job was possible if they didn’t see someone who is doing it,” she said. “It’s about exposure, opportunity, empowerment.”
Note: CIA's annual Automotive Design Symposium is made possible through the generosity of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association.
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