Now that the journey is over, Mac-Lean-Fogg has an innovative new wheel fastener that can best be described as a smart lug nut. But more important, the supplier has solidified a new way of developing products.
AlarmLok, which the company is marketing to automakers for upcoming vehicle programs, features fasteners embedded with sensors that notify the vehicle if they are moving when they shouldn't be. The sensors can trigger the vehicle's alarm or turn on security cameras to alert police.
"On the surface," said Ryan Ripley, MacLean-Fogg's vice president of business transformation, "this is a project about making a better security wheel fastener, and people want that because their wheels get stolen."
To MacLean-Fogg, a company with 2017 sales of about $450 million and 40 plants around the world, the product represents potential business growth. But inside the company, AlarmLok really represents a new way of innovating.
Traditionally, supplier product development has come at the direction of an automaker customer, Ripley said. The supplier asks what the customer needs and then works to develop a product.
In MacLean-Fogg's new approach, the supplier takes the initiative to ask questions in the marketplace and develop a product for which it sees a need.
Management decided in 2011 to incorporate Silicon Valley computer-development practices, and the company sought guidance from Northwestern University on how to do it.
The result is a five-step system designed to make innovation repeatable. According to Ripley, the steps are: understand, discovery, opportunity, invent and decision.
The practice requires company employees to interview selected product users to learn about their unmet needs.
In the course of understanding how to create better wheel fasteners, the company learned that vehicle owners, retailers and automakers had different unmet needs when it came to theft prevention. Fastener locks existed, but they don't stop professional criminals at new-car lots, and they require keys that can get lost. Customers wanted something better and easier.
Ripley sent team members to mechanic shops, police stations, exotic dealerships — and even to parking lots and malls to talk to passers-by.
"What we learned in inventing new products is that you actually have to go out there and see what's happening in the world and talk to people," Ripley said. "When you do that, you come back with any number of different insights."
Robert Whitney, Mac- Lean-Fogg's executive vice president who handles operations, said the product development effort hit a wall when it required technical capabilities that Mac- Lean-Fogg lacked. But because the opportunity had been identified, the company pressed ahead, reaching out for help from experts in the field.
"It pushed us into areas that were beyond our normal wheelhouse," Whitney said. "And we said, 'OK, if we need to learn more, we'll go find those people and bring them in and keep moving.'
"Without the new process," he said, "we wouldn't have continued."