Teams, Not Individuals, are Better to Bring Things to Fruition

Dr Tim Leverton, Tata Motors' head of research & development, talks about research in automotive industry

Published: Feb 28, 2012 06:09:24 AM IST
Updated: Feb 28, 2012 06:33:53 PM IST
Teams, Not Individuals, are Better to Bring Things to Fruition
Image: Manoj Patil for Forbes India
Dr Tim Leverton chief of Tata Motors' research & development

Dr Tim Leverton joined Tata Motors as head of research & development in 2010. Having spent more than 25 years in the automotive industry, Dr Leverton is well-known for his path-breaking research at JCB and BMW. We met him at Tata Motors’ Engineering and Research Centre (ERC) in Pune. Here are some of his insights

-True R&D happens in small groups
Often small groups are productive for research and development (R&D). That doesn’t mean they can’t be part of big companies. In fact, it is simply a matter of resources which a big company is much better at. So, if you look at our portfolio of third-horizon projects [those that are important for competitive advantage], they will invariably be running in small teams because quite a lot of invention comes from individuals more than it comes from a sort of synthetic process.

One of the things we try to do is encourage our people to come up with ideas and very often these are individuals who have just had a brain wave. And then we select some of them to take forward. In the nature of it, teams are more effective than individuals in bringing things to fruition. Very often you need that interaction and depth. It is quite an intense sort of process.

- Industry and academia must collaborate
I think there is an increasingly obvious trend in innovation across the world which is that individual institutions, whether they are companies or universities, some of the big breakthroughs have come from that combination of ideas. And so one of the things that we are doing is working in a network of different universities, different start up companies, different vendor partners and these networks are an important way of working.

So, I have projects running all over the world today: in America, in Europe and in India, of course. In the end some of these emerge as centres of excellence and you have to bring them together to create very specific innovations. I think we have seen that very often, and if we take an example, Apple acts as an integrator for innovations that have come from Korea, Britain or wherever. They mastermind that and they show that they understand the customer and they draw the whole network together and are able to come up with specific innovations.

-What counts as R&D is work that serves the customer
Ultimately we have to be concerned with our ability to bring our products to the market. I mean, if we can bring a healthy product that addresses the market then that’s the sign of success of whatever we do. That’s the end goal and that’s the only measure that counts in my mind. But, of course, we look at other things and we do have a lot of patents and IPR registrations and we do measure that. I know that we are increasing the effectiveness of our R&D in that sense. But what really counts is that we are serving our customers. We can do a lot of R&D, but if it doesn’t serve our customers then it is not effective.

-The world is moving towards efficiency
Following the early development of the automobile, the architecture of the car became fairly stable. It is really the challenge of reducing emissions and improving efficiency which I think has been done far more in the last 15 years than ever before in cars. If you look at engines, it may look the same from the outside but the rate of change in the combustion technology, the systems technology and the actual rated improvement in fuel economy in gasoline engines is astonishing. If you take Europe as an example of what’s going to happen in India, emissions norms are going to get more stringent.

There is, of course, hybrid and electric vehicles but also in terms of weight savings, I think it has been a big push in innovation in the auto industry worldwide in the last 10 years. The things that’s fascinating about a car as a system is the amount of energy it consumes and the ways in which we can use and recover or reuse that energy.

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