The Road Less Traveled

Columns From: 6/1/1998 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

A few years ago, benchmarking was all the rage.

A few years ago, benchmarking was all the rage. It came to mind while attending the 12th annual National Center for Manufacturing Sciences Conference & Expo last month in Orlando. Roadmaps were the rage—and I'm talking about the process, not routes from the hotel to Epcot. If benchmarking is about determining where one is at, roadmapping is about where one is going.

Briefly, a roadmap is a combination of a variety of existing studies that are typically performed within an organization—about products, markets, R&D, engineering, manufacturing resources, etc.—that are consolidated into one master document. The goal is to figure out where the organization needs to be at some point in the future. Additionally, the steps that are required to get from here to there are identified. As a result, people within all levels of the organization can be provided with a view that goes beyond the immediate fires that need to be put out. And, ideally, the roadmap can keep fires from starting because there is an identified, workable plan.

The difference between strategic planning and road-mapping is essentially a matter of perspective. The strategic plan can be thought of as a map of, say, the U.S. The roadmap is, then, akin to an AAA Triptik, which highlights how to get from New York to Los Angeles. Not only is that guide a handy thing, but if it routes you along a particular highway, you can always make a detour in the event of a problem, which will still get you to where you're going, even if there's a diversion.

Not only are roadmaps useful for specific companies, but for entire industries, as well. During the NCMS meeting there were presentations about roadmaps for the following industries: heat treating, electronics, machine tools, rapid prototyping, welding, forging, and others. One of the uses of a roadmap at an industry level is to get money from the federal government for R&D. Which is good to the extent that if our tax dollars are going to be at work, it is beneficial if those who are working know what they're supposed to be doing.

Also, industry-level roadmaps can help identify areas where industry-government collaborations are needed in order to achieve leap-frog—not natural incremental—developments. One of the functions—and an extremely important one—of NCMS is to facilitate collaborations. Although NCMS was born in the days of the Reagan Administration, when the Cold War was still an abiding concern and so industrial competitiveness was considered to be vital, not optional, anyone who thinks it is okay to have anything less than superb productive capabilities today is out of touch with reality.

Don't be misled by current economic good times in the U.S.: the rest of the world may be struggling, but you can be damn sure that they're not only creating roadmaps, but they're figuring out how to pave the roads.

During the conference, Dr. Steven Popper, senior economist with the Critical Technologies Institute, which is operated for the U.S. government by the Rand Corp., described some of the results of the fourth National Critical Technologies Review. This biennial report will be delivered to the Office of Science and Technology, which is attached to the president's office. When CEOs and CTOs from a wide range of industries were asked which technologies are presently most critical to their companies' well being, there were five that were named repeatedly. In order of frequency, they are: software; microelectronics and telecommunications; advanced manufacturing technology; new materials; and sensors and imaging. Popper said that when they talked about advanced manufacturing technology, the tenor of their remarks was tempered with crisis and concern. The corporate officials didn't seem to feel that the U.S. is doing a good job. And having superior means of production is critical for any company (or country) that wants to be competitive.

So what is to be done?

Within the auto industry, executives and staff people ought to recognize that most of the U.S. companies that are providing them with their machinery and equipment are generally small and have comparatively shallow pockets. If the car makers want to compete with companies with headquarters in Germany and Japan—where there are solid relationships built between the car companies, machine tool companies, academic and research facilities, and the government—then they can do two things, right now, that can help assure that their roadmaps won't be describing secondary, under-developed highways:

1. Participate with people and resources, including cash, on collaborative research programs. (Yes, some of this is happening now, but much more can be done.)

2. Assist the smaller companies by creating payment arrangements that don't seem as if they were formulated by Ebenezer Scrooge.

None of this is about charity. It's all about competitiveness.