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The SmartFit seating system was developed as the outcome of an Ignition Workshop held by the xWorks personnel. It came about as there was a recognition that connectivity was going to become a bigger part of life, and uses smartphone technology so that the person who will be sitting in a seat can provide parameters about her- or himself so that the seat is setup to meet that person’s specific comfort needs.

Rob Huber, vp of Innovation at Faurecia, says that they’ve established xWorks innovation centers in both Shanghai and Munich, predicated on the success of the original facility in Michigan. In addition, they’ve established a “footprint” in Silicon Valley, recognizing that it is “by far the most rich regional area associated with new technology,” so they want to make sure they can take advantage of appropriate developments.

FAURECIA’S AWARD-WINNING Product Development Process

This process combines breakthrough innovation with business needs—which means it really is rather clever.

DuPont. Corning. Xerox. All companies widely known for their innovative product prowess. All recipients of the Product Development and Management Association’s annual Outstanding Corporate Innovator (OCI) Award. The award is predicated on a company’s ability to integrate strategy, culture, process, and technology to consistently create and capture value through product and service innovation. This isn’t something that a company does overnight. It is something that must have been the case for at least five years.

And a company that received the 25th OCI from PDMA is Faurecia (faurecia.com), one of the top-10 global suppliers with particular expertise in automotive seating and interiors (as well as operations that produce exterior components and emissions control technologies). In the seating and interiors arena, Faurecia goes head-to-head with companies including Johnson Controls, Lear, and Magna, which means that it is up against stalwart competitors.

So the issue is to create an advantage.

Which leads us to Rob Huber, vice president of Innovation for Faurecia xWorks Innovation Centers, who is based in Holland, Michigan. Huber champions open innovation models on a global basis; there are xWorks centers in Munich, Germany, and Shanghai, China, as well as in Michigan. These models are used to create new ideas, and then new products for the automotive space. Huber has been with the company since 2006. He has experience at OEM, competitor and consumer-products companies since starting his career in 1985.

“One of the unique things about our industry,” Huber says, “is the complexity of the business model: between the OEM and the Tier One, Tier Two and Tier Three supply base.” Not only are there these interfaces that have to be managed, but for a company like Faurecia, and its development and production of seating products, there are regulations that have to be met, such as those that relate to vehicle crash. “Those two parameters create a very difficult environment to talk about breakthrough innovation. There is a long history and there are a lot of challenges toward meeting those requirements for crash, particularly for automotive seating,” he says.

Or, if you think about it, once methods have been devised to deal with both the supply chain issues as well as the means to manage crash, it would probably be easier to do incremental innovation than anything nearing breakthrough: making mods to what has been developed would be more of a sure thing.

But that’s not necessarily what consumers are interested in. So, Huber says, Faurecia management decided about seven years ago to really provide a focus on the front end of innovation, to focus on the end customer for its products.

And so xWorks was born.

“We put together a small group of people—six people—a very cross-functional team,” Huber says. It consists of people with backgrounds in design, engineering, consumer research, and business. The team was then housed in its own, separate space. “The conclusion we came to,” he says, “was to have a dedicated space, away from our technical center because the urgency of our business drives us toward near-term thinking, and we wanted some separation to focus on the long term.” Yet they didn’t want to be isolated from consumers and from the business and its resources. All three consistencies (the consumer, the management, and the tech personnel) are critical to the success of the product development method.

The process starts by looking at trends, both consumer trends and cultural trends. While this isn’t something that isn’t otherwise being done by other companies, Huber says that they have a keen focus on involvement by company leadership to help filter the trends from the perspective of what they mean as regards the company’s product offerings. It helps to achieve clarity on what they need to pursue and buy-in from the leadership, as they are participants in this.

Once they have a direction, they initiate what is called an “Ignition Workshop,” a two- or three-day immersion which brings in not only the xWorks team,
but participants from management, as well as from any of the company’s global technical centers. Again, Huber points out, by having the range of participants means that there is ownership of the outcomes. The workshops generally occur on a quarterly basis.
The first stage in the Ignition Workshop process is Immersion. This is a review of what they know—market info (what OEMs are looking for; what competitors are up to; what Faurecia itself has); consumer info (research and trends); what is occurring in the company; what ideas participants may have germane to the subject at hand.

Next is Expansion. It is about widening the scope, including what the OEMs strategies are going forward, what social trends and consumer expectations exist, and what emerging technologies are becoming available.

Synthesis follows. Here is a structured brainstorming event, which brings focus to what has occurred, focus that is to lead to the making of connections where there had been disparate items.

Stage four is Distillation. Arguably, this is like making alcohol. Following the fermentation, there is the distillation, wherein there is refinement. In this case, it’s ideas, not alcohol. This stage includes creating categories and clarifying and building upon the ideas previously generated.

Sorting occurs next. This is a case where there is a selection of the leading candidates as well as the combination of other ideas for further consideration.

Planning is the next step. This is where the action plan is created so that the idea is ready to go into the company’s stage-gate process at the first stage, M0, Exploration.

The final step in the Ignition Workshop process is Action. This is where the planning meets the process of developing the idea into a product. By this time, they have a high level of confidence in where things can go, especially as by this point they’ve had inputs representing the customers, the market, the business, and the technical feasibility.

One of the things that Huber says is important to the development process, especially as the products that Faurecia provides are physical (e.g., seats, interior trim), is to do rapid, physical prototypes. They’ll take plywood and foam and create quick seats, for example. If it works, it moves on to a more-refined model. If it doesn’t, then they haven’t lost much in the way of time and money.

An example of how time is compressed is the development of the SmartFit seat. There was a consumer trends workshop held in January 2010. One of the trends that were identified out of that workshop was the importance of connectivity. (Huber emphasizes that it is important to take into account that we’re talking about something that happened three years ago, when seemingly everyone wasn’t carrying around an Android or Apple phone, so while connectivity may seem rather passé now, back then it wasn’t such a foregone conclusion.) An Ignition workshop was conducted in March. In November, at the LA Auto Show, a demonstration property of the SmartFit seat was at the Faurecia stand. Then, in December 2010, a co-development program with an OEM commenced.

Also part of what the xWorks team pursues as part of its open innovation approach to product development are other parties to work with, such as universities and national labs. Again, that’s the sort of thing that is fairly standard in the product development space. What isn’t so common, however, is what they’re part of: “It’s what we call an ‘innovation co-op.’” Huber explains that they have established a group with representatives of local, non-competitive companies. So in the case in western Michigan, where the xWorks facility is located, members of the co-op come from Whirlpool and Steelcase. “We believe that there is value in face-to-face meetings,” Huber says, indicating the importance of the local approach. “We are all involved in consumer products; we are all looking at some of the same things.”

The innovation co-op holds monthly meetings during which information is shared. But he points out that: (1) there is no proprietary information discussed and (2) there is no brainstorming involved because issues of intellectual property might arise. That notwithstanding, he says that there are lots of benefits derived, such as learning about companies with unique technologies that they otherwise might not have known about.

Speaking of the product development process and the means and methods to used by Faurecia, Rob Huber says, “What we’ve built here is unique. We started with a clean sheet of paper, not a lot of legacy or silos. And we’ve been able to build momentum behind initiatives that have been effective within our company and connected with our customers.” Which is the whole point.