DETROIT—Canadian auto supplier Magna International Inc. has a broad global and product reach in the auto industry, from mirrors to body panels to structural steel and even the Magna Styr assembly plant in Graz, Austria.
That would seem to set the supplier up nicely for an auto industry that is in the midst of a change that involves everything from the growth of trucks and sport-utility vehicles to electric vehicles to autonomous cars that may one day be able to drive themselves.
But even a company like Magna isn't about to try and take that on single-handedly.
No one can do it alone, Grahame Burrow, global president of Magna Exteriors said during an interview at the North American International Auto Show, held recently in Detroit.
"It's hard to predict the future in the new world of mobility," Burrow said. "The pace of change is incredible."
Burrow, whose offices are in Troy, Mich., talked about what Magna and the auto industry in general are facing.
What are auto makers looking for from Magna?
Much of the demand and the focus is on technology, sensor technology and electronics. I can't speak too much as to what the electronic requirements are, but as an exteriors group, our focus is on how we hit the styling requirements the customers need and integrate those sensors into (body) panels in an effective, affordable way, and understand where they need to be placed.
Some need to be placed at the front of the car, some on the back, some on the top, so how do you do it? And how do you do it and make it aesthetically pleasing?
You've seen some of the concept cars out there; they look like cartoons. You've got a dishwasher stuck on the top and things that are spinning around, so Magna's focus is to go with small packaging with the right materials so we can apply the proper coatings in some ways really make them appear invisible.
That's an advantage with Magna's plastic and composite parts, right?
Yes. Of course from a functionality perspective we've got to do it in such a way that everything still works, so that everything is protected and for example if you have a small fender bender, you don't want your sensor system to be completely pushed out of whack.
So we're looking at all those things. The structure behind it, the aesthetics in front of it.
Some of the developments we've got going on right now allow signals to pass through the material virtually uninhibited, and that's a key objective. A lot of materials will distort the signal, and to a certain degree that's allowed, but not by much. Right now where we're trying to outpace the competition is by allowing undistorted (signal transmission).
So does Magna's range of products play right into the autonomous wheelhouse?
We like to think that everything plays into our wheelhouse. We're diverse, but Magna overall we can touch almost any space in the vehicle and when we work across groups in Magna, we think we're untouchable.
Magna has been involved in research and production using carbon fiber. What role do you see carbon fiber playing in the future?
We've got a big development project going on right now with Jaguar Land Rover that just focuses on the deployment overall of carbon fiber to boost the performance of an electric car. We've also just finished a concept using carbon fiber in a frame project with Ford.
Our innovation approach is to marry together styling leadership, material science and technology leadership and bring all of those things together so we can have something that performs, is functional and that looks great.
Looking at the requirements for the auto industry in 2025 and beyond, what keeps you awake?
It's really trying to predict the future. The pace of change is incredible. We have to look at what are the things that are going to be most important to the consumer. What are the things that the consumer will demand, whether it's electric cars or various levels of autonomy. And all of those things require various levels of investment, so where do we place our bets?
More importantly, once we make that decision, who do we partner with? We cannot do it alone. There's too much to do and there's too much investment required, so we're going to have to share the load. So we know we have to find partners and that's key.