Marginal: Think Again

Columns From: 6/1/2007 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

What you know and what you do may not be enough to be competitive.

One of the things that’s rather puzzling is that for all the talk about how technologically advanced the vehicle manufacturers in the U.S. are, there are still some rather significant gaps vis-à-vis the applications of technology. I have long been puzzled why the implementation of lasers in body shops has been so long in coming. Yes, I acknowledge that there is a built-in reticence to try some new things because of the enormous cost of failure, but it is not like (a) lasers are new, untried technology or (b) there aren’t applications (e.g., Volvo; Volkswagen) where there are successes. This is one of the cases where there have been some bad experiences in U.S. plants. Those experiences, by and large, were the consequence of doing what is invariably a recipe for failure: When faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge, apply the nascent high-technology tool. The failure isn’t necessarily a consequence of the technology as much as it is with the lack of understanding of how to use it. You don’t put a 16-year-old behind the wheel of a Corvette Z06 and not expect a ticket or worse. If the kid does get a ticket, would you simply say: “From now on, it’s the bus for you?” Similarly, applying new technology means starting with something other than the extreme case. Deployment, learnings, new deployment, more learnings—that’s the way of getting things done the proper way. That takes time, of course, so there is a reluctance to invest it. Another effect is that because there isn’t a thorough understanding of the technology, one is unable to take full advantage of what it offers. To stick with the laser example: If it just comes down to a matter of exchanging spot welding guns with a laser, chances are, unless there are some rather unusual circumstances (e.g., an exceeding high cost of floor space so a few laser-robots can replace a multitude of spot welding stations), you might as well save your money. What’s necessary is for there to be a change in what is being made, which necessitates there to be an understanding by not only the manufacturing engineers and the process engineers of the capability of the technology, but also of the design engineers and the product engineers. Some people mutter that union workers only do one task. While that is no longer necessarily true, more crippling is that people in other parts of the organization tend to do one thing. I recently spoke with a president of an engineering services firm who has come to automotive from another industry. He said he was completely flabbergasted by the levels of functional redundancy he’s discovered in auto. For example, he expects his designers to have a complete understanding of the manufacturing processes related to whatever it is that they design, that they shouldn’t hand off their work to someone else who then, in turn, hands it off to someone else . . . I’m guessing that there aren’t a whole lot of automotive designers who understand that if a laser is used to assemble a vehicle, there are all manner of things that can be done (e.g., flanges can be greatly reduced; only one-sided access is needed for welds to be effected). So because they don’t understand that, there aren’t the sorts of changes that could be made with great benefit. So the status remains quo. And that, while not a risk, is potentially more debilitating that taking a big gamble and losing. I am not claiming that the utilization of lasers has the potential to turn red ink into black, but I am saying that the lack of use of lasers is demonstrative of a bigger problem, which is one of making half . . . hearted efforts at making change. The whole issue boils down to this: “We don’t think that way.” We don’t think, often enough, about investing time, energy, efforts, and, yes, money, into something different. We don’t think, often enough, about dissolving real or ostensible boundaries that keep us within a functional area. We don’t think, often enough, period. Rather, we fight the fires in front of us, or keep our heads down lest being up they get chopped off, or we just go through the motions that managed to get us where we are. But that no longer makes it. No longer makes it now, not at some point in the future.

What got me thinking about all this is the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. Yes, that’s wiki (from the Hawaiian quick) as in Wikipedia. While you might think that the auto industry isn’t about encyclopedias or open-source software and consequently Wikinomics would be diversionary, at most, in point of fact the authors describe the economy we live in right now as one wherein those that cast wide a net for collaborators (be they suppliers or customers) will be more successful than those who prefer to work in the way it’s always been done, which tends to have hard limits on the collaboration and a restricted sense of the buyer-vendor relationship. The authors write: “Developing new ways to harness talent outside their boundaries remains an important and largely unexplored frontier for the auto industry.” Do you think companies that are developing in this arena—whether it be a company like Tesla or Chery—will have the same fundamental restraints? If so, think again.