Hard-wired for the future auto industry

January 25, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Elizabeth Rolinski has come a long way in her career — but not in miles.

Rolinski, plant manager at the Meadowbrook Lithium-Ion Manufacturing Center that Johnson Controls-Saft is setting up in Holland, is a native of Spring Lake, about 25 miles north of her new job site.

Though she was just named to head the new battery plant in the fall, she is not new either to Johnson Controls Inc. or to manufacturing management. In fact, once before she was plant manager at the very same JCI Meadowbrook facility, before it was converted to a warehouse several years ago.

JCI, which has headquarters in Milwaukee, made big news last August when the U.S. Department of Energy selected it for a $299 million grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. JCI, with help from its partner Saft, a French lithium-ion battery producer, had proposed to build manufacturing capacity in Holland for advanced batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles.

The Johnson Controls-Saft project in Holland is a near $600 million total investment in equipment and infrastructure.

Almost 50 companies and organizations received $2.4 billion in ARRA funds to accelerate the manufacturing of electric vehicles, batteries and components in America. An industry analyst said the JCI grant was the largest of them all. They are all matching grants, which means half of the Johnson Controls-Saft investment will eventually be reimbursed by the DOE.

Elizabeth L. Rolinski

Company: Johnson Controls-Saft
Position: Plant Manager, Holland Operations/Hybrid Battery Systems
Age: 44
Birthplace: Spring Lake
Residence: West Olive
Family/Personal: Husband, Adam; two sons, ages 17 and 22.
Community/Business Involvement: Board member and treasurer of Lakeshore Advantage; Holland Young Professionals; Boy Scouts of America troop leader; Neighborhood Networks coordinator, Our Lady of the Lake parish.
Biggest Career Break: Being recommended to General Motors Institute by her high school counselor for her career education.

Rolinski's mother was a teacher, and her father, Bill Arnold, had a glass shop in Grand Haven that included auto glass replacement. Rolinski worked there as a teenager. Both Rolinski and her brother, who also works for JCI as an executive, were admitted to the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) with the help of a high school counselor who had good connections.

The counselor obviously saw engineering potential in the Arnold kids. In high school, Rolinski said she loved math and science.

"I was never one of those kids in high school who didn't know what I was going to go into," she said. She knew it was going to be some kind of engineering related to the auto industry.

As a GMI co-op student, her first work assignment was at the General Motors Proving Grounds, where she was soon certified to use the test track while working on engineering issues related to interior noise and vibration and fuel pumps. She once drove a Corvette on the test track — undoubtedly a task that would have made boys her age swoon.

Much later, she was assigned to the engineering team that was redesigning an Oldsmobile plant in Lansing for production of the Buick Reatta, a European-style two-seater that was individually assembled by teams of workers, as opposed to coming off one long assembly line.

"For an industrial engineer, it's a dream come true" to be included on such a challenging launch project, she said. The ultimate question facing every industrial engineer is: "How do you make this thing, and make money while you're doing it?" she said.

Ironically, Rolinski had worked in that same plant before, when it was a major bumper production plant. She said her feelings then were similar to those she has now, as she plunges into the challenge of taking a totally empty plant where she once worked and turning it into a completely different production process.

After graduating from GMI, Rolinski worked for GM for a few months, then got married and soon accepted a job at Prince Corp. in Holland in 1988 as a manufacturing engineer.

There followed a series of different types of management jobs in various automotive manufacturing settings, at Prince and then continuing seamlessly at JCI when it bought out Prince in 1996. She worked as a quality engineer and in purchasing on a supplier development team. Rolinski was responsible for auditing the suppliers, which revealed all manner of opportunities for improvement. Back then, she said, there were no generally accepted standards for auto industry suppliers to adhere to; each company set its own standards and processes for keeping tabs on its suppliers' work.

"We needed to make sure the supplies of materials kept coming to us," while maintaining the required quality of those materials, she said. "It was a fun job because of all that I learned."

Prince Corp. had "focused factories" within a larger factory, and Rolinski became the manager of one of those mini-factories in the early 1990s — her first experience with the demanding lifestyle of plant management.

Around 1996, she became an official plant manager, in charge of the Prince Corp. automobile armrest plant, then called the Beechwood facility, in Holland. That was followed by assignment to the Meadowbrook plant as its plant manager, which lasted about a year and a half. When it was converted into a warehouse, she was named plant manager of the JCI Southview plant in Holland, which made visors and injection moldings. The Southview plant was perhaps the largest JCI plant in West Michigan, with as many as 800 employees.

Rolinski comes across as an individual who is well acquainted with a fast pace. To her, the most challenging aspect of plant management is that non-stop pace.

"When you're up and running, you can't stop. You have orders every day — every hour," she said. Plant managers, in general, are typically either on the job or on call every minute his or her plant is operating — and some are 24-7 operations.

"In the automotive industry, you can't call your customers and tell them you're not going to ship today," she added. Every part in a vehicle is part of the overall value chain, and if production halts on one critical part, it can shut down a lot of other production lines throughout the company — and even in other companies and across state lines. That results in huge additional cost to make that end product, a serious impact on its profitability.

For that reason, she said, factories are different from a lot of other places where people go to work every day.

"You do everything you can, in industry, to keep a continuous flow going," she said.

One of the positions Rolinski held longest at JCI was director of operations for its auto interiors business unit, which she headed for about six years until 2008. After that, she became the executive director of quality for the JCI Automotive Group, North America.

She recently added to her education, too, earning an MBA from Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids.

The big task before her now is "pulling together the right balance of talent and experience" to manage the new battery plant, a critical issue for any executive launching a new business venture. Work on the Meadowbrook plant's interior design and equipment installation is set to start. Rolinski said she expects about 300 people to be working in the Meadowbrook Lithium-Ion Manufacturing Center within three or four years.

The Johnson Controls Power Solutions division is the world's largest producer of lead-acid batteries for light cars and trucks; 120 million were made in 2008. One of the key issues in the development of a practical electric or hybrid-electric vehicle is a battery that holds a powerful charge, can be recharged thousands of times, doesn't weigh a ton (or at least several hundred pounds), and doesn't cost a fortune.

Lead-acid batteries are simply out of the picture, but significant advances have been made in lithium-ion batteries. According to the U.S. Department of Energy Web site, the lithium-ion rechargeable battery is "ubiquitous" now in portable devices such as cell phones, laptop computers and power tools. And now in cars — or at least, the new generation of cars.

Johnson Controls-Saft in France is already producing lithium-ion batteries for the Mercedes S-Class hybrid, now being sold in Europe and the U.S., and will supply the batteries for the BMW 7-Series ActiveHybrid.

In December, Johnson Controls-Saft announced that it had been chosen as the lithium-ion battery supplier for Azure Dynamic's propulsion system on an all-electric version of the Ford Transit that goes into production late in 2010.

Rolinski said the first battery packs will be assembled at Meadowbrook beginning late this year, with the battery cells coming from Johnson Controls-Saft in France. Meadowbrook will eventually be making the cells, too, which Rolinski expects to begin around June 2011.

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