Larry Burns is General Motors' global product portfolio boss. He also is director of GM's famed research and development department. 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 Automotive News Europe's Aaron Robinson. Edited excerpts follow:
How is the role of research and development 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 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 inventor and 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 1990s, 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.