The Quick and the Dead

Columns From: 10/1/1998 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

Like it or not, the future is rushing at us, so regardless of whether someone thinks that all the talk about tomorrow is just so much fluff, only the fast will survive.

While putting the pieces for this issue together, one thing struck me: in the cases of the looks at Detroit Diesel's rapid development of its 4.0-liter engine and Visteon Automotive Systems' overall approach to being a supplier, time is the crucial factor for both. It is perceived as a fundamental means of competition. It is used by these companies to gain an edge over their competitors. And they aren't unique in this regard—but they are still rare.

This message comes out loud and clear in a book that will be published this month, Clockspeed : Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage by Charles Fine (Perseus Books; Reading, MA). "Clockspeed" is Fine's measure of how quickly evolution occurs in an industry. Although he points out that the auto industry has a comparatively slow clockspeed overall, he emphasizes, "Sustainable advantage is a slow-clockspeed concept; temporary advantage is a fast-clockspeed concept. And, clockspeeds are increasing almost everywhere." So even in auto, the pace is quickening. And there are, one could say, the quick and the dead. And not all of the zombies know that they've passed on—yet.

Some people argue that too much is made of allegedly unique characteristics of the present by writers like Fine. They note that there have been other periods in history that have undergone similar technological transformation and consequently the gee whiz!!! about today is merely exaggeration. Think only, say, of the 19th century. It underwent the changes of (1) transcontinental railways and (2) the telegraph. Those two things marked profound changes in the supply chain in comparison to what could be accomplished with horses. So, these people say, in effect, "Relax, innovations are always occurring."

These were the same type of people who yelled "Get a horse!" at every auto that trudged by. Put another way: like it or not, the future is rushing at us, so regardless of whether someone thinks that all the talk about tomorrow is just so much fluff, only the fast will survive.

Clockspeed is so full of clues about the importance of time-based competitive capability that if there is any mystery it would be (1) how anyone who reads the book could miss it and (2) how anyone who reads it wouldn't feel that they'd better participate in the future-in-becoming lest they be left behind.

One of the criticisms that I'm hearing more often when vehicles are being introduced to the motoring press is that electronics are becoming too pervasive. These journalists complain that the driver's capabilities and predilections are giving way to microprocessor control. Indeed, one can plausibly argue that the architecture of the car is no longer that defined by steel but by silicon. Fine points out, "Today, the dollar value of a car's electronics is overtaking the value of its steel body, and the electronic system rivals the steel body as one of the most-important subsystems." Visteon, Bosch, Delphi, and even firms like Johnson Controls (which isn't just in the seat business anymore, but is a provider of interior environments, of which electronics are a big part) are embarked on a relentless pursuit of improved functional performance, and you can be sure that this will (1) include more electronic functionality and (2) won't make those auto writers very happy. Electronics in cars are an example of a quicker Clockspeed.

The pace of technology development was once led by military needs. Nowadays, the consumer electronics market—Fine writes about the "MICE industry": multimedia, information, communications, and electronics—including the computer industry, is setting the pace. The expectations we have with regard to how fast our PCs boot or Web pages download are the same types of expectations that exist with regard to what we want in the vehicles we buy. This translates back through the vehicle development cycle—manufacturing operations must become more capable of nearly on-the-fly changes, which means flexible, adaptive, redeployable equipment. This means that engineering and designing must be more closely integrated not only with manufacturing, but all the way into the market.

The old saw "Slow and sure wins the race" no longer holds. When product lifecycles are, as Fine describes the faster movers, like those of fruit flies, the race is essentially over before slow even makes it to the starting line. He warns, "Individual capabilities can lose value over-night, hastened by new or rapidly evolving technologies or by the new tactics of competitors." Although he is talking about companies, the same is true for the capabilities that we, as individuals have. Is time on your side?