The stuff that trumps more mega-hyper-data

You don't have to be in the auto biz for long to notice the steady creep of … more.

More facts, more data, more choices, more comparables … more information at hand to make decisions. Oh yeah, are there ever more decisions. We all keep adding more responsibilities, without shedding old ones. We just wear more hats.

Data used to be slow and laborious. Once, for info I'd call somebody on my desk telephone -- and hope he answered. Before answering machines, voice mail, e-mail, texting or cell phones, just asking the question was iffy. Now I read whole databases on my smartphone in seconds. Clearly, the new way is better.

Tons of data

Supplier executives once struggled for months to gather enough information to make buy-or-build decisions. Now there are tons of data, but that decision has morphed to buy, build, partner, assist, outsource, license or collaborate.

Information overload is everybody's burden. And the skill that separates winners from also-rans? Often, it's managing data.

New decision processes are emerging. This week at a Center for Automotive Research breakfast briefing, I ran into Dave Barnhart, chief engineer of a relatively new Magna International unit called new production creation.

To me, it's a new twist of the old skunk-works approach: Put a small group of people with disparate skills in a room stuffed with tools and materials and keep them there until they solve a tricky problem.

But this group identifies which new products to develop, using which technology, and the best way to get there -- that's the buy/build/partner bit. Then pick the best and most profitable opportunities for Magna to pursue. And do it faster than the guys making the same strategic decisions at competitors.

Hey, it's just a few variables to juggle, no more than, say, long-term weather forecasting.

Pick and choose

Barnhart and his group have plenty of data and analysis. But which are pertinent?

"The key is experience," Barnhart says. The unit has lots of it, and its members actively seek out more. They'll tap internal employees who have experience with manufacturing, specific technologies, likely customers, or the supplier Magna is considering linking up with. They'll ask why a supplier is offering a technology instead of developing it itself.

"Often it's capital," Barnhart says.

Magna uses both quantitative data and qualitative human judgment. And qualitative trumps quant.

Despite the challenge, Barnhart clearly is having fun. I mention the process to Rebecca Lindland, head of Americas auto research for IHS Automotive.

"I'm doing the same thing," she says. "Clients want more data, more analysis. We're always looking for the best way to provide it -- build it, buy it, partner …"

Having fun

In fact, the whole room at the CAR event was full of people trying to get their arms around all the variables of meeting corporate fuel economy standards of the 2025 model year.

Let's see, at least eight powertrain technologies, shifting legislation and a midcycle rule revision, myriad material combinations, global markets with other rules -- all to design products people will want to buy. Basically, make your choices and bet the company you're right.

It really is starting to be more fun.

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