Q: In 2014, Continental Automotive started operations at its new research center in Guadalajara. For what reasons did Continental invest so heavily in Mexico as an R&D hub?
A: While the center is relatively new, our R&D operations in Mexico have been in effect for over 15 years now. Currently, the center employs close to 1,200 people with applications in three major fields. The first is safety, accident and injury prevention, the second covers powertrain and vehicle propulsion, and the third is the availability of information. Three years ago, Continental made the decision to formally increase its investment in Mexico, which led to the construction of our own R&D center and the consolidation of our Periferico and Tijera plants in Guadalajara into a single building at Continental Santa Anita. Through our manufacturing activities, we realized that the skillset of our workforce was transferable to R&D, and that Mexico has no shortage of skilled engineers. During 2015, we expanded our Mexican workforce by 20%, and we were able to transfer some of our knowledgeable engineers to Guadalajara. Continental also developed link-up programs with universities to create new academic programs, and a laboratory for electromagnetic compatibility alongside CINVESTAV, leading to a lasting partnership. The university’s flexibility allowed us to develop students within the fields that Continental required over five years, specifically training R&D professionals. Now we are leaning towards product development and the conversion of ideas into prototypes.
Q: How is Continental enabling these students to obtain the required knowledge and skill levels?
A: To develop the right capabilities, we need students to have a solid foundation of knowledge that we can build on. Having entered the innovation field, we do need to change the educational structure to thoroughly focus on methodology. In fact, students have been developing ideas from scratch in what we call innovation cells, which are challenges that are held three times a year. Within these challenges, students must produce a prototype that shows the economic feasibility of an idea, be it related to engineering, design, or business. Through these types of programs we promote communication that leads to innovation, which could eventually be commercialized, because innovation does not come from the top, but rather from the bottom.
Q: What business segment has seen the biggest development as a result of these innovation cells?
A: Due to the technological convergence, the interior part of the business, focused on entertainment and communication products, is the sector in which we see the most room for exploration. Programs like our innovation cells give us the opportunity to learn and adapt quickly. We have some applications that might improve the user experience and enhance the user interface, like gesture recognition. As a matter of fact, we are experimenting with some brainwave applications and ten different technologies regarding gesture recognition.
With Agile Product Development, which is very different to the common processes in the industry, we can develop a competitive state through innovation. We are working directly with car manufacturers to identify current market trends and develop products to meet them. These types of operations are called Trend Antenna, and we presently have one in Germany, China, and Mexico, each with its own particular approach. In our Mexican center we collect close to 200 inventions every year, 50-60 of which are transformed into prototypes, and 10% become patent applications.
Q: What other technology areas have you detected as opportunities for projects in your R&D center?
A: The process of electrification and charging of vehicles has plenty of room to grow. Cars will eventually become intelligent transport systems, and will become the most efficient sensor to access and collect information that can improve the navigation and safety of the vehicle, as well as decrease emissions. Furthermore, Continental’s R&D developments include diesel and gas engine controllers, certain products for telematics applications, including satellite and radio, airbag controllers, and security applications that disable vehicle access to unauthorized people. There is a new tendency toward sensors that measure the vehicle’s inertia and take decisions accordingly, as well as with transmission controllers and other safety applications related to the adherence of the tires, both of which have been worked on by our engineers. In total, we have 3,400 projects running at the same time within those fields of application.