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Dr. Andrew Brown, Jr., executive director and chief technologist, Delphi: “Innovation is at the core of our company—it’s part of our DNA.”

Product Development: The View from Delphi

Andrew Brown, Jr., heads up tech at Delphi. His focused approach is helping drive the company forward, and is one that may be helpful for others to follow.

It was about a year ago, April, 2010, Andrew Brown, Jr., executive director and chief technologist, Delphi Corp. (delphi.com), says, that they started working on the project. A project that culminated in Delphi Automotive being one of five companies selected by the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology (IPT; ipt.fraunhofer.de/en) for its 2010 “Successful Practice Award,” an honor that Brown and his colleagues received in February, 2011, for its technology management and process consistency, for its products and processes.

Brown says that some 300 companies from around the world applied to IPT, submitting “a rather thorough survey instrument.” Which is probably a pleasant way of describing a form that would make the most-demanding IRS documentation look like a checklist. That resulted, based on the judgment of 30 cross-industry, cross-function assessors working with IPT, in the selection of 30 companies. More granular assessments occurred—realize that FraunhoferGesellschaft is the largest applied research organization in Europe, so these people are nothing if not detail-oriented and well versed in technology innovation, practices and products—and then they made site visits.

“They spent an evening and a day with us at Delphi headquarters here in Troy, [MI],” Brown says. “We started the day with a discussion of the products we produce, and then we showed them the hardware. We demonstrated the products and the technologies that are the output of our business processes and practices. They were looking for further validation of the robustness of the processes. So we went through the processes: What we did and why we do it. And they were interested in the people side as well: How do we recognize and reward our people?”

As for the last, Delphi has a compre-hensive and public acknowledgement of the people whose capabilities, imagination and skills lead to benefits for the company. “Professionals want the opportunity to continue to learn, to expand their knowledge base, and to be able to apply that knowledge base to create things of value—more knowledge, a product, a technology, a service. You have to have a means for them to be recognized for their improved knowledge and competency,” he says. Yes, there are monetary awards. But there is something else that is important: recognition and acknowledgement of their accomplishments. There is the “’Boss’ Kettering Award,” named after Charles Kettering, the first vice president of the GM Research Laboratories and inventor of, among other things (he was granted more than 140 patents), the electric starter motor, which some argue is the single most important invention as regards the growth of the auto industry (i.e., how popular would cars be if people had to continue to manually crank the engine?). And there is an “Innovation Hall of Fame” with plaques including face plates of the individuals who are so honored, and this hall of fame isn’t off in a room somewhere at HQ that only the cleaning staff see, but is actually located opposite the main elevator bank so everyone who goes in and out of the building sees the individuals who have gained such an achievement.

Brown is frank about something, something that plenty of people know about, something that many people at companies like Delphi probably don’t like to talk about: “Fortunately or unfortunately, we went through a bankruptcy.” Delphi filed in October, 2005. It emerged from Chapter 11 four years later, in October, 2009. “The bankruptcy gave us an opportunity to think differently,” he says, then enumerates some of the subjects they looked at head-on: “What is the right portfolio? It certainly wasn’t the traditional one. That led us to be more customer-driven, market-driven. We needed to better understand the megatrends and the trends driving them. It’s not that we were about trying to predict the future—if anyone says they can do that, they’re wrong. But what you can do is gain an understanding of what’s going on in the marketplace, and from that synthesize the opportunities for your organization. How well you do that is the differentiator.”

Brown explains that while there are plenty of opportunities, it is important to clearly understand which are appropriate, taking into account things like your organization’s competence and capabilities. Then based on that determination, it is necessary to develop technology roadmaps that will allow you to benefit from those market opportunities.

In the case of Delphi—a global supplier with offerings including but not limited to: body electronics, security systems, mechatronics, cables and wiring, ignition systems, audio systems, navigation, hybrid and electric vehicle battery pack systems, fuel-handling systems, safety electronics, engine and transmission sensors, HVAC systems—they determined that there are three overarching things to focus on: Safe, Green and Connected. Brown says that all of their work is predicated on fulfilling needs specifically germane to one of those elements. “Think about where transportation is headed, about what’s going on in the auto industry,” he suggests, and goes on to note that among the items being addressed by the OEMs include accident avoidance, emissions regulations, and personal and vehicular connectivity. And these are global concerns, so there is market scale.

Brown explains their thinking: “It is directionally clear what problems need to be solved. What’s not so clear is the solution set. So it is very important for us to work with our OEM customers, our suppliers, universities, and government labs. As I tell everyone, not all of the smart people in the world work for you. You want to get the input of as many smart people as you can. Get input, ideas and technologies from others to augment what you are doing. As a result, 1. You come up with a smarter, more efficient solution; 2. You can get to market faster; and 3. You come up with a solution that is cost-effective that people can afford.”

Brown says that by taking a focused approach to product development, they are increasing their odds of getting products to market more quickly and cost-effectively than their competitors. While some people think that it is better to “spread their bets” across a wider range than something like Safe, Green and Connected, Brown rejoins, “That only works if you have infinite resources—capital and people. Assuming you don’t know what bet has the highest probability of winning, you’re saying all bets are equal. We’re saying not all bets are equal.” To say nothing of the fact that nowadays, resources are dear for all organizations.

And there is another factor at play: “You have to be in tune with the trends, to understand the demands of the marketplace and what the new sets of require-ments are. You have to invest the time to understand what the requirements will be. If you try to maintain the status quo, you will become commoditized.” Just because you have a competency and capability in something doesn’t mean that there is going to be an on-going demand for that, or if there is a demand, that it will be valued by your customer, at least not as much as it was in the past.

He cites an example: the electrification of the powertrain. “If you’re just maintaining a mechanical engineering competency and not adding electrical, electronics, software, and chemical engineering to your organization, then you’re not going to be able to benefit from that trend.” And he points out that change isn’t something that happens over night, that it is essential to have a forward-looking plan and to build a competency and a portfolio to address it.

“The biggest challenge,” Brown says, “is relevance—continuing to create the right product, at the right time, with the right cost, and the right quality. You’ve got to get those factors right.”