Untold Innovation Stories: Ivan Mendenhall

Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Ivan Mendenhall

By:  Katie Taylor & Dani Clark

This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. For the second quarter, we’re focused on the science sector. We asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and we are amazed at the response!

This month, we’re sharing the story of Ivan Mendenhall, Senior Chemist at Autoliv. His interview dives into the airbag industry and its innovations. With his rich history in pyrotechnic formulations, Ivan represents the power of institutional storytelling in mentorship and research roles alike. 

So, we hope you enjoy these few minutes with Ivan Mendenhall.

P.S. Keep sending in those nominations of others for us to highlight in our Untold Innovation series. You can complete our nomination form online or email us with their information.

Ivan Mendenhall‘s Innovation Story

Ivan received his Bachelor’s in Chemistry and his PhD in Food Chemistry at Utah State University. For nearly three decades, he worked as a Research Chemist at Morton International, which later became Autoliv, the worldwide leader in automotive safety. At Autoliv, Ivan develops pyrotechnic formulations used in automotive airbag inflators.

UC: What is your field of speciality?

IM: I’m in the sciences. 

UC: Where does your innovation story begin?

IM: My name is Ivan Mendenhall and I live in Providence, Utah. I work for Autoliv, a Sweden-based automotive safety company that makes airbags, seatbelts, steering wheels and other safety products. In northern Utah, Autoliv has seven facilities and is the state’s largest manufacturing employer. Everyone at Autoliv is focused on our vision of Saving More Lives. The area is growing and Autoliv is Utah’s largest manufacturing employer  By trade, I am a chemist and  earned a Ph.D. at Utah State University and have dedicated my career to safety. But I first started out working on Analytical Chemistry.

As a chemist, I work in the R&D lab developing pyrotechnic formulations that are used in automotive airbags. Airbags actually have their roots in the Rocket Motor industry. Solid rocket motors use propellant to create thrust and, of course, cause rockets to lift off and fly. With airbags, we don’t call the material we use “propellant,” but instead refer to it as “gas generant.”  However, it is a similar principle. Our  solid pyrotechnic formulations perform so that when a crash is sensed, the pyrotechnic materials undergo combustion, which results in an airbag deployment. The gas for the airbag is actually created by a gas generator material. This material is a pyrotechnic formulation, which means it contains a fuel and an oxidizer, and then other ingredients that custom tailor the burning temperature of the formulation. 

UC: Can you tell us a bit about the impact your work with airbags has on the field of chemistry or the world at large? 

IM: Unfortunately, many people around the world are killed each year in automotive accidents. Seatbelts were the first safety mechanism put in place to try and minimize the number of fatalities. Airbags soon followed, and while they aren’t meant to replace seatbelts, they become effective when working in conjunction with a properly fastened and positioned occupant. At Autoliv, we like to think that we are saving more lives in our everyday work of developing these products. Think of it as “real life safety.” Yet, the ultimate goal is to have zero fatalities on the road. 

In the field of chemistry, pyrotechnic materials have been around a long time. They’ve been used in the military for smoke, flashbangs, grenades and fireworks. We like to think that we’re taking technology that’s been around for years and adapting it to new and innovative products that help us in our everyday lives. We try to produce a lot of gas with the least amount of material as possible in case a crash event occurs. We are committed to having this gas be safe because it vents into the interior of a car cabin. Due to regulation and customer requirements, we are limited on the amount of noxious gases that can be produced, and that’s always a challenge from a chemistry standpoint – to have a positive combustion reaction outcome and have a very safe, clean gas that the occupant will breathe at some point during a collision. We’re also limited on how much particulate matter can come out of that airbag. And if that wasn’t difficult enough, we have to ensure our gas and components can fit in a small space (such as behind the horn, in seats or hidden in the vehicle’s head liners) and work the first time.  No matter the conditions, our products only get one chance to get it right.  

UC: Can you speak a little more to this idea of innovating within a highly regulated industry? Some would say that inhibits innovation and some might say that it provides the right constraints. How does that impact your ability to innovate? 

IM: You hit on a key point, and that is: if there’s too much free reign, then things can get out of control in a hurry. But again, if it’s too regulated and too constrictive, that can really put a damper on innovation. So, really our approach is: “Let’s think outside of the box and imagine that the sky’s the limit within reason.” Then we can come up with a handful of ideas that seem to fit the need, and begin to down-select based on all of the requirements that we have, especially cost. But we will never compromise on quality or safety. Ever. 

Our innovations cross boundaries from chemistry to engineering. In the past several years, we’ve done a lot of work on optimizing the combustion characteristics of the formulations we use to realize maximum advantages in the finished product installed in a vehicle. These advantages include size, weight, performance and cost.  

UC: Getting back to the heart of your research, what role does storytelling have on your ability to innovate? 

IM: Communication is important to understand where we’ve been and to be aware of the decisions that lead us to where we are today and how that relates back to our vision of Saving More Lives. Understanding institutional history through storytelling is key for innovationChemists that work in our group come from all different chemistry education backgrounds. Employees apply the principles of chemistry they’ve learned and then do a lot of learning on the job about the materials that we work with and how to safely handle them. Our method for publishing our results usually ends up in the patent literature versus the scientific literature. Patent literature isn’t as detailed because we’re trying to patent something without revealing the entire process and innovation. 

All that to say, to come in and start working in our group requires a lot of mentoring from the people that have been here a long time. Myself and two other chemists are in the process of doing that right now. We’re training the next generation to take over and keep safety and quality at the forefront. We’ve just hired a person  out of graduate school who has been with Autoliv for four years;  we typically think it takes about 10 years to ramp up to the expert level, so he has a few years yet to go. Sharing best practices means engaging our team in weekly meetings where the chemists come together and discuss the projects we’re working on, talking through the  challenges and  determining outcomes. This is pure storytelling. It’s amazing because a lot of times we all work on different segments of the industry, so one of us might be facing a challenge in airbags and someone from another segment could offer new perspective and valuable input for how to solve that problem. 

UC: If you think forward to future generations, what is one piece of advice you would share with future scientific innovators?

IM: As I’ve looked back over my career, when a new individual comes into our group and starts doing the work we’re doing, they’re typically eager, full of ideas, life and encouraged to share their ideas. They have a lot of fresh perspective they want to try and that is bolstered by raw passion. They haven’t been knocked down too many times with ideas that have failed for various reasons, and it’s important to maintain enthusiasm for new ideas throughout your career – to never lose that spirit of daily discovery  and a “can do” attitude. And as a mentor, it’s our job to make sure that enthusiasm isn’t stifled while we try to steer new people toward solutions that have a higher probability of being successful, and ultimately save lives. The next several years are going to be interesting to watch the safety industry take shape and evolve, given that automated and autonomous vehicles are changing our perception on transportation.  We started putting airbags in cars in the late 1980s, and they’re pretty much standard equipment now. And for somebody coming into this industry right now, the temptation would be to think, “Well, everything that can be done has been done. What’s the point?” But there’s a myriad of challenges on the horizon. No matter the mode of transportation,  there will always be a need for safety equipment, and Autoliv is leading the way!

Thanks for reading Ivan’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.

And, don’t forget to nominate an innovator in your sector. Complete our online nomination form or email us.

*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.

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