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The Innovation Factory: Pushing Detroit Forward Again

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The Innovation Factory: Pushing Detroit Forward Again

by Ian Sharp, former Chrysler Corporation engineer

In the 1990s, Chrysler started something called Liberty Technical Affairs, to try to produce advanced technology. It was a good idea, but it was done in a corporate manner, and that limited what it could do.

You've got to put your time in, but there also has to be an independent auditing and financial arm, understanding how experimental R&D groups work. We got maybe 20% of the way there with Liberty, but budgeting and purchasing were always under the corporate financial group.

I would set up a similar program, but have teams with one chassis project engineer, one powertrain, and one electrical, each with a credit card. They can go and buy whatever they want up to a limit, say $10 million, and every six months or every year they have to produce something - a piece of equipment, a product or some sort of hardware that can be reviewed as a final product or as an interim step.

If they wanted to use that credit card to take the team out for a pizza evening, it could be used for that. Free thinking's great. Chrysler's way is too constrained, it comes from the Wall Street and financial influences.

Detroit, Inc.

I always wanted to set up an independent R&D building with some CAD equipment, tools, and materials, where engineers from the Big Three could come in during their off-time and, with a CAD designer, create pieces that they had an interest in, parts of cars that they wanted to do, experimental and patterns and things. That company would supply all the materials and help for free, but it would take a 10% stake in if that product made it into a vehicle.

You'd have people working at Ford or GM or Chrysler who might discover or have those ideas upon their work time, but we've all signed agreements that anything we design becomes the property of GM, Ford, or Chrysler. Quite often, you couldn't get interest within the company for the ideas you wanted to do.

The electric intermittent wiper was invented by a guy at Ford, but he couldn't get Ford interested in it. He went off and found the money to do it himself, and then Ford sued him because they said it was their idea, which it wasn't, because they paid no attention to it and dismissed it. He won the patent case on that.

We need to create a mechanism where smart people in the industry can work, with a qualifying person or committee, maybe a group of three peers, to choose which projects guys could come in and do.

Say a guy had an idea for a plastic-injection steering assembly that's twice as strong as current ones, and it's all made from net finished parts, you don't have to machine anything. If I was working for Chrysler, Chrysler would get first dibs on that, to get it to a stage where it was commercially of interest. So they get their money back, but Chrysler, Ford or GM have no input into it up to its first stage, and that would be funded by a separate group outside the auto industry.

Often, young engineers join the company. They're what, 23, 24, 25? Then they're 27, 28 and they started having kids and that sort of thing. That becomes the priority and they don't want to disrupt their career, yet this would be a way that they still have those passions and things they want to do. Now, they have to subjugate those passions and ideas for the better of the family, this way they can still have their passions.

It becomes Detroit, Inc., not GM, Ford, or Fiat Chrysler. It's a research and development facility. It's Detroit Research Inc., and the Big Three can get first dibs of the stuff that comes out of there.

It could be self-funding after a couple of years, maybe an independent non-profit, so the Big Three can't have any influence on it in its initial stages, but can come in for every six months or a year for a show-and-tell and the guys get to present what they've been working on. If it's a Ford project, then they get first dibs. And if they don't want to pick it up, the others could, or the people could go out and see if another company or industry wanted to pick up that idea and fund it.

Within the corporate world, there's a lot of unrequited passion for engineering that gets stifled by the structure. You just can't get it done with the naysayers, the unwillingness to spend money on something experimental. Detroit Research, Inc., would fix that.

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