Feb 8, 2023CAREER & LIFE
Working on the design work of antennas of ADAS millimeter wave radar sensors that help save lives
Doing every task right to make the world’s safest cars
Even if you think that some of your colleague are your respected persons who work hard or those difficult to approach during work, you will see that they are very worried about things or have their own pure wishes when you break down the barriers of formality and talk openly with them outside of their workplaces.
In this “Interview series: Exploring the ideas and feelings of professionals who make things happen”, we talk casually with a wide range of professionals at DENSO to learn about what truly drives them in their work, as well as their ambitions and dreams.
We will introduce Kazuhiro Aoki of AD&ADAS Engineering Div. 2, who is involved in development and mass-production design for millimeter wave radar sensors.
Specifically, he is working on development and mass production design of millimeter wave radar sensors used in DENSO’s Global Safety Package (GSP) for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). A millimeter wave radar sensor detects people and objects in the vicinity of a vehicle with radio waves, and he specializes in designing the antennas for the sensors that send and receive the radio wave. After he involved in designing antennas for the GSP2 and GSP3 systems, he started on his current task, which is creating the concept for a sensor two generations ahead.
Speaking to me in powerful fashion with an unwavering and determined gaze, Aoki described his dream for the future: to eliminate traffic accident deaths and protect people’s lives; to make DENSO’S ADAS the best in the world; and to someday become company president.
His words were clear and decisive, yet Aoki is still a straightforward, honest engineer who focuses on doing every task carefully and correctly.
Let’s take a closer look at Aoki’s true dreams and his vision for the future—what lies behind the design work of this dedicated and passionate engineer.
Contents of this article
Working to save people’s lives through designing antennas of millimeter wave radar sensors for ADAS
─ First, please tell me about your current work.
Aoki: I’m involved in design work of antennas of ADAS millimeter wave radar sensors used in automobiles. ADAS stands for “advanced driver assistance system.” You may have heard the term when people talk about collision-free cars and automatic braking.
─ Actually, I’ve heard about them through TV commercials. They’re the functions that automatically stop cars when persons or objects are detected, and warn drivers of danger, right?
Aoki: That’s right. DENSO’s mass-produced GSP, which are designed for use in ADAS, have two main types of sensors: vision sensors, which use cameras to visually detect surroundings of the vehicle, and millimeter wave radar sensors, which use radio waves to detect surroundings of the vehicle. I work on radar sensors, which use radio waves to recognize people and objects in the vicinity, determine distances to them, and detect their speeds and movement angles.
Based on this information, it’s possible to limit vehicle speeds so that drivers can drive their vehicles safely, to issue an alert to drivers or to apply emergency braking when it is predicted that their vehicles collide with their objects. I work on designing antennas that send and receive the radio waves necessary for such functions.
─ I see. Radar sensors predict danger before drivers notice them, and drivers can avoid traffic accidents. Safety performance of vehicles is becoming much better thanks to the engineers like you.
Aoki: Thank you! My work helps save lives, so I have to make sure that only perfect, fully complete products are released to the market. Thus this makes it a very challenging job, but I really want to reduce traffic fatalities and save as many lives as possible, and this motivates me to keep going.
─ Have you had such a thought since you joined DENSO?
Aoki: Yes. I have always felt destined to do this kind of work. When I was a child, my friend’s older brother passed away in a car accident, and as a child I saw what it was like for a family to grieve due to that kind of loss—and for someone to be taken from this world by a car crash.
From that point onward, I dreamed of doing work that could save people’s lives. For a time, I was interested in becoming a police officer, and I am still drawn to work that directly saves people’s lives like a doctor. At any rate, my goal was to help save people through my work, and now, at DENSO, I’m able to fulfill my childhood dream. I’m really happy and proud of the work I do.
Aiming for perfection: never neglecting small efforts, and always asking oneself questions honestly
─ What is the most important thing in your work?
Aoki: I think it’s important to visit the suppliers of the antenna materials and PCBs (printed circuit boards) in person, as well as DENSO’s manufacturing divisions, and communicate my ideas directly to people there, because when it comes to work that can save lives, it’s vital to collaborate with a wide range of people.
Always sticking to formalities and communicating with others only in writing is not enough; you have to talk to others directly in order to show them your passion and have your work understood better.
This is something that a highly experienced member of the company once taught me, and I’ve kept that lesson close to heart. Moreover, mistakes and oversights aren’t allowed in my type of work, so I keep making small efforts right.
─ It hits me that even a single component of a vehicle is infused with the passion of those involved. You seem to take your job very seriously, but when striving for that level of perfection, isn’t it difficult to concentrate or deal with it mentally?
Aoki: Of course, I’m only human, so I get tired or I sometimes feel like giving in and settling on a compromise. But making a wrong decision could cost somebody their life.
─ How do you prevent that from happening?
Aoki: I always ask myself if I’m honest with my thoughts and if I’m doing the right thing.
Recently, for example, when measuring the performance of an antenna I had designed, I noticed a slight difference from the design value. Maybe most people would have moved on without worrying about it because it was within the permissible dispersion. But the more I looked into it, the more things seemed off, so I took the time to examine the problem in greater depth. Ultimately, I discovered a problem with the antenna, and with the help of various people I was able to fix it and eliminate the problem.
If I were to dismiss a small issue like that because it takes too much time and energy to handle, it may lead to a much bigger problem. That’s precisely why I think it’s so important to ask myself if I’m honest with my thoughts and ideas and if I’m doing the right thing.
─ It sounds like that’s an important personal rule in your work.
Aoki: That is also the lesson my highly experienced member taught me when I changed my career to designing: even when your colleagues dismiss a discrepancy or issue as too minor to look into, don’t be swayed. Approach it from an amateur’s perspective and take the time to look into something if it feels off, no matter how small. That lesson has been important to me as an engineer and enabled me to make correct decisions throughout my career, and I intend to keep following that advice.
The greatest reward: seeing my products actually used in vehicles
─ You have improved your own approach and skills for your job by working with your managers, colleagues and suppliers, haven’t you?
Aoki: Yes, I have. I was originally involved in research and development when I joined DENSO, but a lecture of my company’s director I went to soon thereafter motivated me to get involved in design work. In the Q&A session of the lecture, someone asked a director what had been the most rewarding thing in his career.
─ And what was the answer?
Aoki: The director said, “Of course, it was when I saw a car running on the road in which my products I had been involved in were used.” That moment awoke something inside of me. I was impressed by the answer, and I wanted to do the same myself! From that point onward, I grew increasingly interested in becoming a designer and an engineer.
─ So that’s what motivated you to become an engineer?
Aoki: Yes, I feel the happiest as an engineer when I see a car running on the road in which my products I was involved in are used, as the director said. No drivers have ever actually come up and thanked me, of course, but it feels as if they have! [laughs]
As car driving must be safe as the norm, we have few opportunities that users actually admire or thank me for my work. But it’s important to remember that even a single system requires hard work of hundreds of people to create it, and when I think of this, it makes me feel very grateful.
─ I think it makes your job very rewarding. And it makes you enjoy taking a walk, too.
Aoki: It is! When I take a walk with my children, I tell them, “That car uses a product made by your dad!” Of course, they’re still too young to really understand what that means, but either way I will keep designing the best products possible until they are old enough to understand.
Accepting the challenge provided the chance of success is at least 50%; anxiety indicates a meaningful challenge
─ From what you told me, I feel that you have developed a special attachment to your products like your own child. Doesn’t it also cause anxiety and emotional conflict at times?
Aoki: My products are really important to me like my own child. I can clearly mention that my products are absolutely safe around the world. On the other hand, there are times when I doubt myself, wondering if they will perform perfectly all of the time. When I imagine that my products could cause traffic accidents, I get very nervous, or at least am reminded of the huge responsibility placed on me. It’s similar to how parents worry about their own children.
─ How do you cope with those anxiety?
Aoki: I try to think of it as a sign that I have taken on a meaningful challenge. Our products have competitors around the world, which means that we have to leverage our strengths as a company and give our products unique advantages that set them apart from the competition. That involves taking on some big challenges, so there is bound to be a degree of uncertainty and worry involved. Such anxiety is a necessary part of the process when challenging oneself.
─ That’s a very good way to look at it! However, I imagine some people struggle to challenge themselves in such a manner. How do you manage to keep taking on those challenges toward your own dreams and ambitions?
Aoki: If I think the odds of success are over 50 percent, I’ll make the decision to give it a go. Even if the outcome is unclear and I’m uncertain of whether or not I’m capable of succeeding, I’ll tell myself to do it. This approach helps me naturally find a way of reaching my goal, and then find myself able to start making progress.
─ I see.
Aoki: The worst thing you can do is give up before you’ve even started. Say you have three possible ways of approaching a challenge. At the outset, it doesn’t matter much which one you choose.
This is also true of your job and overall career: you must make a decision to get the ball rolling. This is how I get started when facing a tough challenge.
─ In other words, just make a choice and pursue that path as best you can. That’s a really good lesson!
Aoki: Just like anybody, I’m far from perfect. Despite my strong initial determination, I have doubted myself when things didn’t go as planned. There have been plenty of sleepless nights worrying about what to do next, how to overcome my current problem.
However, once I promise myself to see a challenge through to the end, I always find a way through somehow. At that point, there’s no choice but to stick to the promises you’ve made to others and keep going. If something seems off, no matter how small, you must look into it. Eventually you’ll find a way through to your goal. That’s what I’ve learned through experience.
For all of those people out there who feel too uncertain of themselves to take the plunge, this is my advice: “Make mistakes. Then make more mistakes. You’ll eventually find your way through—everybody faces this type of challenge. After that, simply have courage and devote yourself to the work.”
Striving for heights and delivering DENSO products to customers all around the world
─ Finally, could you tell me your ambitions and dreams?
Aoki: Making sure there are no more traffic fatalities. This is something I’ve always wanted, and will remain my biggest goal. Every time an accident occurs, I take it very hard, even if it didn’t involve a DENSO product. It’s awful when an accident involves children.
If those children had not been killed, they may have gone on to make a great discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, or done some sort of work that greatly benefited Japan or the wider world. The best I can do to help prevent the loss of such promising children is to design the world’s safest ADAS products for use by customers around the globe.
─ I can feel your thoughts and sense of mission to save people’s lives through your dream.
Aoki: In addition to that, my dream as a DENSO employee is to be the president someday.
─ Wow! All the way up to president?
Aoki: We live in a competitive society, so it’s natural to strive for number one. Therefore, I hope to lead this company someday. To accomplish that, I need to build up a broad knowledge and experience, and become able to contribute more than anyone else to DENSO and our customers.
Even if I don’t make it as far as president, the act of honestly challenging myself to reach that goal is very worthwhile. No matter what others may say, I’ll keep pursuing my dreams.
─ I’m greatly impressed by your ambition to reach such lofty goals.
Aoki: I plan to keep improving in product-related work so that customers will someday tell us they think DENSO’s ADAS are the best in the world. I’ll never give in to the competition—perhaps that just makes me hate losing. [laughs]
─ It seems like your drive to be number one gives you great energy.
Aoki: Yes. Also, working in close cooperation with my colleagues is key. I’ve been reminded time and time again that there is a limit to what one person can do alone; without the help of other DENSO associates as well as the supplier company for our antenna PCBs, none of my design work would be possible.
That’s why I want to keep meeting and working with new, like-minded people throughout Japan and the whole world. By creating new value, I can expand the scope of what I’m able to do, which will present me with even more interesting challenges to tackle. In this way, I hope to provide products and systems made by me and DENSO to an even wider range of people around the world.
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