Even though Larry Burns is General Motors' global product portfolio boss, he doesn't call himself a car guy. 'I'm an industry guy,' he says. It's easy to tell. Burns gets as excited about a new process to improve manufacturing efficiency as he does about a new part that makes cars go faster.
Burns, 48, also is director of GM's famed research and development department. He has helped engineer a fuel cell partnership with Toyota Motor Corp. and has shifted the company's fuel cell work into high gear.
Burns' department is vastly different from the old GM Research Laboratories, which conducted research into everything from medical science to nuclear physics. During the past 10 years, the department has been merged with GM's central operations and its mission has been redefined to lend more support to the company's day-to-day carmaking business. Burns spoke with Staff Reporter Aaron Robinson. Edited excerpts follow:
How is the role of r&d changing in today's highly competitive, cost-obsessed industry?
If you go back and study industrial r&d, you might argue that we are entering into a fourth generation r&d model. There was a generation just after World War II that some people call the second generation, where the notion was: Hire great scientists, put them in a laboratory, give them some equipment and money, let them work on whatever they want to work on, and great things will happen.
Great things did happen, but they often didn't get implemented because there wasn't that linkage between the inventor and the practitioner. The inventor always felt that the practitioner didn't open his mind to what was possible. The practitioner always felt the inventor didn't have a practical sense of what was needed.
Companies began to realize that that wasn't the right model to follow. They swung over in the other direction and tried to get the scientists working right in the operations, hands-on-deck, solving the everyday problems. This is what I would call the third generation. What we discovered was that we weren't getting the bold ideas, and there wasn't enough reach coming through the innovation process.
You would characterize the old GM r&d as third generation?
Second or third generation. Pure science was second, then we went to the period in the early '90s, in which the company was struggling financially and we really had no choice but to get a lot of those people focused on today's problems. That was a necessary response to the situation we were in as a company. Now we're very focused on what we consider fourth generation.
Our intent is to be an industry leader in innovation and take r&d and planning and equate it to innovation and market responsiveness. I try to get our people to think that their end product isn't science but innovation. And innovation isn't really realized until it's being used either in a product, a manufacturing process, or as an all-new business.
What we try to get our people thinking about is not to predict the future, but to recognize that the world is moving fast and we must sense what is possible and respond to it with a whole variety of different possible responses. Then we must learn through the implementation.
Can you envision a fifth-generation of r&d?
I think I can, and it's going to involve the Internet and how we will be able to do work 24 hours a day around the world and not be co-located. It's a world in which access to information is equal to anyone. How you do r&d in that world could be quite different.
The fifth-generation model will be less about individual challenges and breakthroughs than collaboration and relationships. Originality will come from how you put those pieces together. Everything will move very fast. The notion of intellectual property that provides a long-term competitive advantage is just not going to be there. You'll have a temporary advantage, and you'll have to move quickly to your next temporary advantage. The fifth-generation model of r&d will have a speed dimension that most scientists and researchers today aren't used to.
How do you answer criticism that folding the old r&d into the larger GM management structure has made it less free to conduct pure science?
People sometimes think in terms of absolutes on this subject. Either you're going to do pure scientific work or you're going to development and applications. Because I've been on the planning side of the business I think in terms of portfolios of work. My job is to drive innovation in the company, both on the science side and the product portfolio side.
Of our total budget, roughly half is spent on developing specific technical options that we want to have available by a certain time that will enable us to do things differently in the future. We spend about 30 percent of our available dollars on pure scientific research, or exploratory research projects where someone has a big idea. They're reaching really far, so there's no guarantee that they're right. But if they are right, it's a big deal. The remaining 20 percent is development dollars on focused projects.
What is an example of an exploratory research project?
A good example would be the vehicle development process. The industry norm is 18 to 24 months, with a few examples even faster. The question is: Should you have someone out there thinking about one month? There's a big, bold idea. Is that a crazy idea? You've got math-based design and engineering, and you've got increasing supplier integration and better supply chain management.
My sense is that if you're thinking one month instead of 15 months, you know you can't stay within today's paradigms of thinking. They have to be thinking about completely new ways of doing things. People are also talking about vehicles that never crash. Why would you push someone's mind that far out? If vehicle's never crash, think what it would mean in terms of the package you could offer. It really would become an enabler of design.
Does this new organization require a different kind of person?
When we separated Delphi (Automotive Systems, GM's former parts subsidiary), we essentially took out that part of the company that focused on components. We rely on our suppliers to work on the pieces of the puzzle. The inventions that will come around individual parts will have to come from our suppliers. Even at a component level, we've redirected our r&d away from components and focused it on the systems integration.
If you were a scientist with special expertise in, say, sensors, I'm probably not going to be out shopping for that kind of talent. I expect sensor suppliers to be providing that leadership. If I could pick one word to describe what OEM r&d should be, I would say integration. Whether it's integrating the vehicle or the enterprise. Those are highly valued skills that require a lot of good systems thinking. I think that's where the big opportunities are.
GM is part of a trend in the industry to go out and acquire technology. How do you decide what you'll acquire and what you develop in-house?
We've carefully thought through those aspects of the vehicle where we feel we have to have core competency - that we can't afford to give the responsibility to outside companies. An example is powertrain controls, at the heart of the vehicle and a long-lead item for engine and transmission development but more importantly for the vehicle itself. We have to control our own destiny with that.
Architecture and vehicle packaging is at the heart of giving customers value, and that's a competency that we have to have. Program management skills are another important competency because of the integrating role OEMs play.
What we do at r&d is work on key strategic technologies that give you an offensive capability, where if you have a leading position, you force your competitors to follow. A historic example is the catalytic converter. The whole industry followed our lead on that.
Is there any real benefit to spending time and resources on developing that technology when much of it can be purchased?
You need a lot of deep knowledge to know what to buy and what not to buy. I'm hard-pressed to think you can play in the technology game without any competency yourself. There were periods in GM's history where we tried to carry the whole industry on our back and resolve tough issues that the world was facing.
In today's competitive world you may not want to go that far, which is why you see us creating strategic alliances and collaborations like we have with Toyota on advanced technology and discussions with Honda on various subjects.
One of the reasons we have expertise in that field is to be able to validate claims or refute claims. It's important for a company like ours to be a smart buyer of technology.
You have significant technology partners in Toyota, Isuzu, Suzuki, and now Honda. Compare how they conduct r&d with how you do it.
The thing I admire about working with Toyota - and they may be the best example of a characteristic of Japanese culture - is how much time they spend defining the question. An awful lot of up-front energy goes into dialoguing and building relationships. Once they decide on a direction, they're extraordinarily good at executing.
In our culture we tend to jump to conclusions and not be as rigorous on the front end in defining where we want to head. I would argue that we are a little bit deeper in the pure sciences, and they're definitely deeper in using the results of the pure sciences in developing and integrating it into their enterprise.
Part of it is because they're so good at getting variation out. They don't want to leave anything ambiguous about exactly what's going to be worked on and what isn't going to be worked on.