Mobility

Looking under the bonnet of automotive innovation at Gentherm

In the second blog post of the series, Gentherm CTO Matt Fisch takes Proco Mobility under the bonnet to explain the culture and practices that make Gentherm a driving force for innovation in the automotive industry.

In 1913 Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line for automobiles. It turbocharged the Ford Motor Company’s productivity, reducing the time to build the Model T from 12 hours to an hour and 33 minutes. The history of the automobile industry is bursting with such paradigm-changing innovations. From advances in safety to the rise of internet-connected vehicles, a rich tapestry of pioneering companies have pushed automotive technology to new frontiers.

One such company is Gentherm. In 1996, it introduced the first heated and cooled car seat based on its revolutionary thermal electric technology. Gentherm not only disrupted the industry – it created one.

Some 86 years after Ford’s first production line, the Ford Motor Company became the first to adopt Gentherm’s Climate Control Seat system. Today, Gentherm’s heated and cooled car seat can be found in more than 50 vehicles made by a plethora of carmakers.

But true innovators do not stand still – they are always looking for the next market to disrupt.

Gentherm’s unique combination of expertise of medical and automotive applications gives it the ability to create game-changing comfort, health and wellness products. At the same time, it is addressing a key requirement of the rapidly growing electric vehicle (EV) market – energy efficiency. Gentherm’s extensive research in thermophysiology – the interaction of the human body with the environment – has seen it develop a solution that provides significant energy savings and a range boost for EVs.

It does this all while improving passenger comfort with its ClimateSense™️ technology, which combines smart electronics, thermal effectors and an AI-based software control system. But what are the key ingredients for success that make up an innovative automotive company like Gentherm?

Cultivating a culture of success

According to Gentherm CTO Matt Fisch, creating the right culture is essential for innovation to thrive. That’s why Fisch believes that innovation can’t be an afterthought – it must be “woven into a company’s DNA”.

“When this is achieved, the output is greatly multiplied versus a more traditional think tank approach,” says Fisch. So, how do you embed a culture of innovation into a company? At Gentherm, crowdsourcing is key to harnessing diverse ideas among its workforce.

This is encapsulated by its invent! challenge. Launched last year, the event revolves around a social networking platform that gives hundreds of Gentherm employees the chance to connect and share ideas. Or, as Fisch sees it, it’s an opportunity for employees to flex their “innovation muscles”.

This cross-pollination of thoughts resulted in 180 new product ideas and was so successful that Gentherm is now integrating the platform into its daily operations to foster its growing creative culture movement. This underscores how a culture of innovation is more than great ideas – it’s about creating the right professional process and treating it as a discipline that constantly requires refinement and feedback.

“I’m a big fan of a crowdsourcing,” says Fisch. “It is the most powerful way to capture diversity of thought, and in my experience, companies that build in diversity with their ideation process are far more successful.”

While crowdsourcing can create concerns around maintaining secrecy in a highly competitive industry, Fisch believes the risk is “greatly outweighed by the multiplier effect of a community driven thought process”. Besides, idea generation is just the first step on the journey to delivering a great product. And their success is essentially governed by one metric – customer uptake.

Outside-in thinking: Putting customers first

It all starts with an innovative idea, but to truly disrupt an industry requires a laser focus on solving customer problems. This ‘outside-in’ thinking is what drives some of the most successful technology companies on the planet.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is a key practitioner of outside-in thinking, having said: “the most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer”.

This same ethos underpins Gentherm’s approach to innovation. Instead of a solution looking for a problem, true innovators identify a problem and concentrate their efforts on solving it. This requires an open and ongoing dialogue with customers, ensuring that their feedback is driving the direction of the product. “As engineers, we naturally obsess over technology – but we must first put ourselves in the customer’s or target audience’s shoes,” says Fisch. “Then we think about the technology that’s required to solve that problem.”

It is this approach that leads to long-lasting relationships with OEMs and it’s why Gentherm is focused on anticipating the rapidly changing needs of the EV market.

People power

In the same way that a building is only as sturdy as its foundations, a successful company is only as strong as its people. Gentherm believes teamwork is essential for fostering innovation and that it’s particularly important when creating complex products. Much like Henry Ford’s production line, specialisation allows teams to focus their efforts on ensuring each part of the product reaches the highest standards.

We take risks by sharing our vision for helping our customers to win and differentiate – rather than simply reacting to request for quotations (RFQs).

Matt Fisch, CTO

Gentherm

Gentherm also encourages assertive thought leadership to help ensure the best outcome for its customers. “We take risks by sharing our vision for helping our customers to win and differentiate – rather than simply reacting to request for quotations (RFQs),” says Fisch. This approach requires employees to be “possibility thinkers”.

“This means having the courage to ask, ‘why not?’ and ‘what if?’ and resisting the tendency to obsess over the reasons why an idea may not work,” says Fisch. Combining these characteristics with outside-in thinking and data-driven decision making creates the optimal conditions for a culture of innovation. “It is this type of thinking that is part of the reason we are continuing to disrupt the industry we helped create more than 25 years ago,” adds Fisch.

The future of the automotive industry

The automotive industry has changed dramatically in the 108 years since Henry Ford’s first production line. One fact has remained constant throughout this: new problems create fresh opportunities for innovators to create positive solutions.

Gentherm believes it is essential to be ready to adapt to change. Only with this agile approach can companies create paradigms that positively impact lives. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is a prime example of sudden, industry shaking disruption. Lockdown restrictions have dramatically reshaped the way people work, travel and interact.

“This means that our priorities continue to shift, and we must remain curious and agile to delight our customers,” says Fisch. “At the heart of this is innovation.”

But what does the future of the automotive industry hold? In the third and final post in this series, we’ll look at the technology and trends that are driving change in the automotive industry – from connected cars to autonomous vehicles – and how Gentherm is remaining at the forefront of a rapidly evolving industry.

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