Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Honda R&D Americas Inc. has studied the movement of cockroaches and the swarming of bees to learn about traffic.

So says Frank Paluch, vice president-engineering, at Monday’s opening day of the annual Management Briefing Seminars here in a panel discussion called “Innovate or Die.”

At Honda, it is not a question of dying, he says, but of corporate culture going back to the company’s roots. Founder Soichiro Honda always said, “Do not imitate others,” Paluch says.

Indeed, partner Takeo Fujisawa established Honda R&D as a separate company because the auto maker didn’t just need the innovation of Soichiro Honda, but of many Soichiro Hondas.

“You must have a corporate culture that insists upon (innovation),” says Paluch, who before taking his current job was chief engineer for the ’07 Acura MDX cross/utility vehicle.

“Establishing big challenges spurs innovation and passion,” he says, recalling how Soichiro Honda challenged his company to win the biggest motorcycle race ever, enter the auto industry against government advice and develop an engine that met the U.S. Clean Air Act emission rules.

Today, Honda develops its jet airplane, Asimo robot and fuel-cell technology in the same spirit of reaching to meet a challenge.

Having an independent R&D division was a turning point in Honda’s history, according to Paluch. Honda devotes 5% of global revenue toward researching and developing products and technology.

Honda engineers can choose their own research project and follow it, he says, but there must be a system to ensure the ultimate objective of the research has some merit. Ideas are evaluated, the objective is clarified and a budget is established.

A research-theme committee looks at projects from around the world in order to choose those with potential for mass-market vehicles.

Paluch points to his Acura MDX project to demonstrate how product teams relate to the research teams.

For 10 years, a group of engineers had been working on an active damper system. The MDX team wanted a suspension that could switch easily between sporty and comfortable.

So the team went to the Honda research archives and found the active damper – which adjusts the suspension in anticipation of body roll, pitch and dive – met its requirements. And the research team was delighted to see its work arrive at last in a mass-market product, with hardware assistance from Delphi Corp.

The second innovation eventually adapted to the MDX is a rapid defogger that keeps a 30% humidity level inside the cabin, which is said to be less fatiguing for a driver than an arid environment caused by a constant air-conditioning operation.

When the research team offered the system, “we said it was too expensive and we rejected it; we didn’t want it,” recalls Paluch.

But the team was determined and created a demonstration vehicle of a ’06 MDX, soaked the floors with water and put the vehicle in a humidity chamber over night.

“At 5 a.m, seven of us got into the car and within seconds of going outside, the little fog that started was cleared up,” says Paluch.

“(The system gets) ahead of the fog. (It) increases driving range 4% and keeps 30% humidity in the cabin all the time. From this team’s persistence, we realized the incredible value,” and it was added to the car.