Big companies deliver big innovations. Continental AG — one of the industry’s biggest suppliers — is also one of its biggest innovators.
“Innovation never stops,” said Tammy Snow, Continental’s head of research and advanced engineering in North America.
These days, the sparking of new ideas at the manufacturer, which sold $24.2 billion in auto parts and systems last year, is benefiting from the input of its employees from all over the world — including people who have been recruited to the company from careers spanning a wide variety of backgrounds.
Snow’s team has recruited engineers from consumer electronics, robotics, aviation, the gaming industry, even health care to bring a new perspective to the way things are done there.
Snow: We’re listening.
“You know, mobility is changing,” Snow explained. “And we’re getting into some new territories. So people with different skill sets and different ways of seeing things help us better understand the new challenges we’re going to be encountering from industries adjacent to automotive.
“So when we’re going to be working on who-knows-what project next year, it’s important to have what I call hybrid engineers, who can cross over and work on multiple types of applications.”
These hybrid engineers are helping Continental develop its foray into intelligent intersections, an advanced safety concept of interwoven vehicle communications that uses data from buildings and other vehicles to be able to see what’s coming around the corner, whether pedestrians or oncoming autos.
Continental believes that ideas for product enhancements and new technologies come not just from grand R&D initiatives, but from the suggestions of its employees. The company encourages a free interchange of ideas through an online portal it calls “Conti-vation.”
Employees can use the portal to submit an idea, and colleagues from around the world are able to discuss it, determining whether it’s valid, practical or technologically feasible. The back-and-forth evaluates the idea, and people can leave comments and blog about it.
A good idea escalates into a campaign, with many of them in play at the same time. Some people will do a campaign around ideas in new materials, while others aim to solve a specific problem.
“It could be anything,” Snow said. “It might be a proposal for changing the company’s processes for recruiting personnel. And other employees will chime in and ask, ‘Have you thought about this or have you considered that?'”
A steering committee of stakeholders shepherds an idea through the process. In time, the idea gets voted on as to whether it’s an innovation Continental should pursue.
Even a rejected idea can get a second chance, Snow said. A concept that might not be right for Continental’s automotive business plans could still be a winning idea to the steering committee and other stakeholders. In that case, it’s referred to a group in the company that assists with startups.
That group takes on the idea as a sort of incubator, guiding the employee to outside partners, investors, related businesses. The company might host an employee at a trade show to air the new idea, even help pay the entrepreneur’s salary while the venture finds its legs.
“We’re looking for new ways to develop innovations more efficiently and get them to market faster,” Snow said. “We’re moving in new directions. And we need to be able to make decisions fast about what we should invest in and how we should do it.
“Our people are full of ideas and solutions,” she added. “So we’re listening to them.”
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