Innovation is quirky, but suppliers coax ideas with well-tested methods
Innovation can be daunting and unpredictable, but that doesn’t deter automotive suppliers. They’ve simply made the unpredictable, well, predictable.
Many suppliers have honed step-by-step methods to coax marketable ideas from their engineers. The Automotive News PACE Awards, which honor supplier innovation, are now in their 20th year.
But suppliers encourage inspiration in significantly different ways, and their methods are driven largely by the nature of their products.
Delphi's James Zizelman: TRIZ “causes you to think outside your usual methods” to solve problems.
“Innovative products and processes are never sliced regularly like salami,” says J Ferron, director of judging for PACE Awards.
Delphi, for instance, uses deep knowledge of physics to improve parts such as those for gasoline direct injection.
Seat maker Lear Corp., on the other hand, makes products that motorists touch and see. So it looks to consumer product brands such as athletic apparel maker Under Armour for inspiration.
Two years ago Lear purchased Guilford Mills, which produces fabric for Under Armour.
Russian problem solving
At Delphi, engineers sought a way to reduce clatter in fuel injectors for gasoline direct injection. Inside the injector, the pintle-armature assembly, a 2-inch pinlike shaft with a bulbous head, creates noise when the head lands on its seat, closing fuel flow.
Engineers realized that they could quiet the noise if they reduced the mass of metal hitting the seat. The solution: They placed the armature, a metal disk originally fused to the pintle, on a shaft on the pintle so it could slide about a millimeter.
Thus, the mass of the pintle and armature stops in two steps — first the pintle against the seat, then the armature against a stop on its shaft. The injector, with the noise-reducing feature, won a PACE Award in 2012.
So what was the source of this innovation? A profound understanding of physics — and a method for finding scientific solutions called TRIZ (treez), says James Zizelman, Delphi’s engineering director of gasoline systems.
Zizelman says he has taken TRIZ courses and encourages his staffers to do so. TRIZ, a Russian acronym for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, was developed by a Soviet inventor and science fiction writer, Genrich Altshuller, according to the Altshuller Institute for TRIZ Studies. He started working on TRIZ in 1946 while working for the Caspian Sea flotilla of the Soviet Navy.
TRIZ “causes you to think outside of your usual methods,” says Zizelman in his tidy engineer’s office off Interstate 75, just north of Chrysler Group headquarters.
Altshuller debunked the notion that innovation was the result of sudden enlightenment, says an article posted on the institute’s Web site. Rather, he concluded that problems require solutions that resolve two contradictory elements. And that these contradictions can be overcome with certain fundamental principles.
So in a journey that highlights the often quirky nature of innovation, a method to solve scientific problems wandered more than a half century from postwar Soviet Union to suburban Detroit to improve gasoline direct injection.
From a plumber, too
But innovation at Delphi has come from humbler sources, too.
Back to gasoline direct injection, Delphi needed a method to slightly lengthen the housing of the injector so the pintle’s head hits the seat precisely to stop fuel flow.
In the life of a pintle, it hits the seat about 1 billion times, Zizelman says. Yes, billion with a b. So the pintle cannot be allowed toram the nozzle and wear out.
On the injector team was an engineer who worked as a plumber before he went to engineering school.
To cut a pipe, plumbers rotate a blade around the pipe. The plumber-turned-engineer knew that the rotating blade also lengthened the pipe before cutting it. Bingo.
Delphi rotates the injector housing against a blade, a process called scribing. This typically lengthens the housing by 10 microns so it matches the throw of the pintle inside. Ten microns is one-tenth the width of a human hair.
At Valeo, a global supplier of clutches, headlights, torque converters, electronics, wipers and many other products, top management firmly guides innovation.
Top product marketing executives track long-term trends in society and industry, such as megacities and energy resources.
“We look at megatrends, 30 or 40 years in the future,” to devise emerging new products for the auto, says Sam Papazian, Valeo’s development director for lights and wipers, in his office in suburban Paris.
Road map for the CEO
Each year, product marketers at Valeo, whose function includes r&d, present a 10-year road map of trends and possible new products to Valeo’s CEO and other top executives.
A windshield wiper blade called VisioBlade, a 2012 PACE winner, improves safety and cuts vehicle weight — two important vehicle trends identified by company planners.
Here’s how: Wiper fluid travels directly to the windshield via laser-cut channels in the blade. This eliminates fluid spray, which obscures the driver’s vision of the road ahead.
More importantly, Valeo engineers timed the squirt so fluid is applied to the glass only on the blade’s upswing, where it is immediately swept away. The result: better vision.
VisioBlade cuts a significant four pounds from a vehicle’s weight because fluid is used more efficiently and so the reservoir can be smaller.
Like all Valeo innovations, it went through five development phases, or business-case reviews, to ensure it stood a good chance of finding a customer and earning healthy profits. It was purchased by Daimler AG for the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL.
To bring a new product to market requires three things, says PACE’s Ferron: “A genius thought, a champion willing to navigate company traps and snares and most importantly a customer ready to have an adult discussion with that champion about why the innovation is a good idea right now for them and their vehicle buyers.”
Simoncini: Tracking trends
Inspiration from Under Armour
About a decade ago, Lear started buying companies that produce foam, fabric, metal and other seat components. Lear manufactured the metal frames and assembled seats, but was not vertically integrated. The company wanted engineers of different seat parts to start talking to each other as they collectively designed seats from scratch.
“It helps innovation” to have the engineers of various parts working and thinking together, says Ray Scott, Lear’s president of seating. The collaboration can create more desirable products and cut manufacturing costs, he says.
In 2012, Lear paid $257 million to buy Guilford Mills. Automotive fabric accounted for 85 percent of Guilford Mills’ annual sales of about $400 million.
But Guilford Mills also makes fabric for Under Armour and for shoemaker New Balance.
Ten Guilford Mills designers now work with Lear’s fabric designers, says Mandy Sarotte, vice president of engineering and design for Lear’s surface materials.
Athletic apparel drives many fashion trends, she says. So her team is mixing and matching leather and other traditional seat surfaces with Under Armour-inspired fabrics.
“We have to show the sexy stuff to the OEM designers,” she says.
Lear CEO Matthew Simoncini says he encourages his managers to closely track tastes in such products as consumer electronics and adjustable beds.
Top management’s job is to spot what will influence trends five or 10 years down the road, he says, and “a lot of this innovation comes from consumers.”
From sports fabric to household plumbing to Russian science fiction writers, innovation can arise from anywhere in today’s auto industry. The best companies focus engineers on ideas that will sell.
You can reach Charles Child at email@example.com.