DETROIT—Steve Lietaert has twin strategic missions as president of the U.S. operations of German lighting supplier Hella KGaA Hueck & Co. And it's the same double mission that is whipping the rest of the global auto industry.
It's not enough to drive technological advances through a company and across the customer base, he says: You also have to do it faster.
"The customer wants to have a faster innovation cycle," said Lietaert, president of Hella Corporate Center USA Inc. "When they come up with an idea for the appearance of a headlamp or how it will function, they want to get it to market as fast as possible. It they're launching a car in 2022, they don't want what was state of the art four years ago, they want something that you can get into production in a short time frame.
"And so we have to figure out how to speed up that time frame, to speed up their innovations."
Speed is the new magic component of the auto industry business equation. All the usual considerations are still there—cost, weight, performance, quality, environmental impact. But now it's not enough to develop a new vehicle model—it has to be a model that arrives sooner than a competitor's new model to gain a leg up. It's not enough to construct a new assembly plant—it has to be completed six months faster than factories of decades past. The capital for it must come sooner. The work force for it must be trained faster. It's not enough to respond to customer orders on the timetables that worked just fine in years past—customers now want immediate responses and fast delivery. Assembly lines must roll faster. Logistics must move faster.
Traditionally, Lietaert said, a new Hella headlamp development would take three and a half to four years to move through the development pipeline, from design to production to market.
Now, he said, "We can go from release from the customer to being in the vehicle in less than a year and a half."
A world of tools
There is no magic machine that makes that possible. Rather, what's facilitating the industry's push for a faster and faster pace of business is a world of machines—networking data, factory tools with artificial intelligence, integrated engineering offices and better communications between manufacturers and customers and their various tiers of suppliers, and better communications within companies.
And a lot of investment.