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Innovations in Design

Lear Corp.’s new high-tech design studio in Capitol Park maximizes creativity

By Melissa Anders

Page 24

Lear Corp. is teaming up with local college students to develop innovations for the next-generation automotive seating and electrical systems.

The Southfield-based auto supplier plans to open an innovation and design center in the historic 119 State Street building in Detroit’s Capitol Park neighborhood. Lear purchased the 128-year old former cigar factory from Bedrock Real Estate Services. Renovation work on the six-floor, 35,000-square-foot building should be complete by midyear.

“We plan to leverage the rapidly developing infrastructure in the Central Business District, as well as the concentration of arts, science and technology assets in the Capitol Park area to take our seating and electrical businesses to the next level,” Lear President and CEO Matt Simoncini said in a statement.

Lear is a Fortune 500 corporation with about 135,000 employees in 35 countries. Its products are used on more than 300 vehicle nameplates from all major automakers. The company plans to tap into the local talent base by collaborating with students from the College for Creative Studies to come up with new designs and concepts for vehicle seating, interiors and certain non-automotive applications. Lear employees will work with Wayne State University engineering students on software applications and solutions related to vehicle connectivity. The company is still working out details, but students would be paid as part of a work-study program, according to Lear Senior Vice President Mel Stephens.

“It’s taking existing engineers and product development people and putting them in an environment where they can dedicate themselves to working on new innovations as opposed to the day-to-day of fulfilling what we’re doing on our products that are in the market today,” Stephens said. “It’s creating a space where they can have maximum creativity and minimum disruption in an area that’s rich for fostering this kind of innovation. We’re in close proximity to these two universities, which have excellent capabilities in both of these areas.”

mel stephens pull quoteLear is already an industry leader on electrical distribution systems within vehicles, and it hopes to build on that expertise to develop connected vehicle technology. Students and staff at the design center will work on developing ways for vehicles to communicate with other vehicles and with outside infrastructure.

“What is emerging is now the desire to communicate outside the vehicle, so not connecting a vehicle with wire, but with wireless signals to cellular networks or to other grids using wireless technology,” Stephens said.

The number of Lear employees on site will vary by project, but it has a capacity of about 150, according to Stephens. Some full-time staff will be dedicated to working on new projects at the center, while others may move back and forth between the site and headquarters.

The building will also house a non-automotive new business incubator, a think tank, a creative design studio, an art gallery, Lear executive satellite offices, conference and meeting space and a rooftop garden. Further details are forthcoming on these projects, Stephens said.

“The sale of 119 State Street provides Lear with a prime location to launch this cool, unique initiative where brilliant ideas will be developed, nurtured and brought to life,” Dan Gilbert, founding partner of Bedrock Real Estate Services, said in a news release.

Melissa Anders is a Chicago freelance writer.