Innovation is at the heart of manufacturing. Ask any manufacturer about innovation and watch the conversation change. Their eyes light up with interest and they’ll lean into the conversation, captivating you with a story only a manufacturer could tell.
“Manufacturers are born innovators — where others see problems and unavoidable challenges, we see new possibilities and new solutions,” says Neil Boehm, chief technology officer and the vice president of engineering for Gentex, an innovative juggernaut located along the coast of Lake Michigan. “Innovation creates new products, improves processes and allows for better efficiency. It reduces costs, improves competitiveness and offers opportunity. Without innovation, nothing moves forward.”
The secret to innovation, a secret only a select few Michigan manufacturers know, is it’s about more than just the ability to bring new ideas to market; the secret is creating and maintaining a culture of innovation over time and having a go-to process capable of analyzing new ideas while continuing to innovate for operational efficiency.
Gentex knows that secret. Their automatic- dimming rearview mirror, an active safety device that detects and eliminates dangerous glare, has reimagined a once-ignored part of the automobile. Through their innovation, the simple rearview mirror has become coveted real estate within the automobile where new technologies transform a vehicle from a product you buy to a service you can engage with throughout your daily routine.
“We’re benefitted by having 6,000 of the world’s brightest thinkers on our campus,” explains Paul Flynn, Gentex’s vice president of operation. “The people here love science and they love technology and it’s exciting to watch them develop so many new ways to serve the customer — they’ve turned countless small puzzles into the foundation for a multi-billion dollar industry.”
Over the years, Gentex has integrated more than 100 different features into the mirror; everything from displays, cameras and microphones to driver interfaces, transceivers, map lights and more. Their recent acquisition of HomeLink®, the world’s most widely trusted and used vehicle-based wireless control system, has added even more potential to their out-of-the-box thinking.
“When we look for talent, it’s always a challenge because unemployment in West Michigan is low and there are so many amazing manufacturers in the area. I think we’re able to maintain our role as an employer of choice by stepping back and allowing people a chance to explore, grow and create,” Boehm states. “We’re driven to be world class and that makes job- seekers want to work here and our current workforce excited to stay here.”
The innovation process at Gentex isn’t clean and it’s not paint-by-numbers. It’s messy, it’s not always linear and inspiration can come from anywhere. When asked how recent products came to life, the list is almost endless, from asking OEMs about problems without solutions to reaching out to automotive new product development or market research teams to bringing in new engineers regularly for new ideas and fresh perspectives.
Regardless of where it comes from, Gentex never just ignores an idea. Like any great innovator, the company meticulously scrutinizes current challenges, past solutions and potential or unanticipated consequences in search of the innovations to turn a simple something into the next industry game-changer.
“The speed of change today is unprecedented,” Boehm concludes. “The expectations of the market is changing and you need to be able to quickly adapt and innovate to provide them the service they demand while still delivering high quality and low cost. The culture here at Gentex allows innovation to be at the center of what we do and our people are given the freedom to imagine countless possibilities.”