Building on meaningful research collaborations over the past few years, Ford Motor Company and the University of Michigan are continuing the successful Ford-University Summer Sabbatical Program in 2020.

Designed to help junior faculty establish stronger industry connections, the program pairs early career faculty members with a researcher at Ford for short term connections.

John Cristiano, the Assistant Dean for Research Development and Strategic Initiatives at UM-Dearborn, administers the program. He describes, “The Ford-University Summer Sabbatical Program came about four years ago with the mutual desire to increase the interactions with faculty and researchers at Ford. Modeled after a faculty residence program from the early 2000’s, we wanted to provide the opportunity to build long-term relationships and create faculty/collaborator connections. These new working relationships would promote a mutual understanding of challenges and capabilities that would help foster ideas for new joint research proposals.”

It’s working. Connections made over the summer consistently result in joint research proposals that ultimately get funded, in addition to long standing connections between participants.

The program has grown in scale over the years as more and more faculty are interested in connecting with Ford. 6 faculty from UM-Dearborn and 3 faculty from UM’s Ann Arbor campus are participating this year.

The goals are not project based. When embedded at Ford, faculty get the opportunity to understand the team’s challenges and problems, network and know people in related areas, and to have Ford become aware of the faculty research expertise.

Sabbatical participant Abdallah Chehade, Assistant Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering at UM-Dearborn.

Participants say the program has been invaluable. “What you learn about the company’s challenges, corporate culture, and processes can be eye opening, coming from academia. The challenges with industry research, in terms of the timeline, language, and outcomes, can be very different from the environment faculty are familiar with in a university setting.  This program helps bridge the understanding of these two worlds for both the faculty members and the Ford researchers. This rapport combined with technical expertise, leads to creative and innovative solutions to real problems,” Cristiano says.

Almost 30 faculty have participated to date, and four have participated multiple years, including Abdallah Chehade, Assistant Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering at UM-Dearborn. He has four funded projects from Ford that either directly or indirectly resulted from this program. Abdallah Chehade: “The Ford-University Summer Sabbatical Program was a remarkable experience that positively impacted my research career. The program provided me with the opportunity to communicate my skills with several groups at Ford and also allowed me to build strong connections at the company. Those strong collaborations helped me receive four Ford-UM Alliance funded projects. My research team is now collaborating with researchers from Ford Motor Company to build transformative technologies for the automotive industry including Machine Learning (ML) routines for Warranty Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) platforms to achieve the Safety of the Intended Functionality (SOTIF).”

“Popularity of this program has grown steadily over the last four years.  Our researchers recognize the benefit of the focused interaction with faculty, who provide our teams with new perspectives and capabilities to complement Ford’s internal resources.  These summer sabbaticals catalyze strong proposals and establish the relationships for mutually beneficial collaborations.  Ford’s proximity to the UM campuses adds to the leverage of this summer immersion experience.”

The public health crisis has shifted the program to a virtual research collaboration for the summer. Cristiano explains, “Given the current environment, I think Ford’s continued commitment to the program reinforces the value it contributes to the partnership. Continuing to develop and extend this industry-academia network has never been more important. The resulting technical solutions and long standing relationships serve to both enhance the competitiveness of Ford and enrich the classroom for students.”

The Ford Motor Company is the University of Michigan’s largest and oldest corporate partner. The Ford Robotics Building, a collaborative research and teaching space on the UM-Ann Arbor campus funded in large part by Ford, will have its grand opening in the fall.