Toyota Technical Center test crash crew has strong ties to WCC
You might expect an auto services technician to repair cars, but Washtenaw Community College alumni Dave Vella and John Smith are making a career out of crashing them. Brand new ones!
Smith is employed as a technician, and Vella as a senior technician, in the Vehicle Safety & Crashworthiness department at Toyota Technical Center (TTC) in York Township near Ann Arbor, where vehicles undergo regular testing—as often as one crash test daily—to ensure optimum safety.
Part of a growing team that includes more than a dozen WCC alumni at TTC, Smith and Vella design and implement smaller-scale component and full-scale vehicle testing on pre-market vehicles. A single technician is responsible for the build of each test vehicle, as well as post-crash data acquisition, which include complex electronic configurations for collecting the data.
Even crash test dummies are “smart”—every high-tech dummy is designed with multiple embedded sensors and each can cost more than $700,000. Vehicular safety testing is only as good as the data collected, so it is imperative that each test records accurate and sufficient data that can be interpreted for increased safety.
“Measuring data and downloading it—work that engineers used to do—is now what our technicians are responsible for,” said Scott Miller, executive engineer in Vehicle Safety & Crashworthiness at TTC.
During their studies, Vella and sought out and signed up for a co-op with Toyota, which provided the right environment for them to apply their newly-learned automotive skills in a demanding environment.
“R&D wasn’t really an opportunity that I saw before I had the opportunity to co-op,” said Smith, who predicts that there is great opportunity in research and development in southeast Michigan.
Vella, 33, a graduate of Washtenaw Technical Middle College, a charter high school on WCC’s campus, first learned of WCC after spotting an article in an Ann Arbor newspaper. During his high school years, he earned an associate degree in Automotive Services Technology, and with the money saved on one degree, he continued on to earn a second degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology at WCC.
“One thing that drew me to WCC,” he said, “was the flexible schedule, so you could work while you study for your degree.” Vella had looked at other colleges, but found that WCC offered the only option to earn a degree exclusively from evening classes, which accommodated his daytime employment.
Vella understands the value of receiving a quality education. He went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology at Eastern Michigan University, then switched into instructor mode to teach automotive classes at both WCC and Wayne County Community College, before coming onboard at TTC.
Vella’s experience with knowledge transfer builds on the basic framework that now supports his work at TTC—he first learns the newest of technology before passing on his expertise to newer technicians.
Smith, 27, comes from a long line of automotive workers—his father, uncle, and grandfather all worked in automotive plants—and he is proud to be a first generation college graduate. Smith admits he didn’t know what to expect when he first signed on with TTC as an intern in 2010.
“This was my first automotive-related job outside of college—it’s a very clean option for some of the automotive work out there, and I enjoy it. Toyota Technical Center is a really good place to be [employed],” said Smith, who worked at TTC before he graduated.
Smith, along with his wife Joy Smith, who is a registered nurse at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, both entrusted their education to WCC. “I felt prepared for the work I am doing now,” he said.
In the July 2016 issue of On the Record, Miller said, “We couldn’t be more pleased with the quality of education and skills they bring with them to the Toyota work environment.”
Vella and Smith are ready for the rapid changes and future opportunities in technology and envision themselves working as high-level technicians at TTC well into the future.
TTC is the headquarters of the North American Research and Development for Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan. TTC is engaged in engineering design, engine unit design, prototype development, vehicle, material and parts evaluation, purchasing, regulatory affairs, emission certification, advanced research and collaborative research activities.
By Jessica Bibbee
Intern, Public Relations