TRAVERSE CITY, MI – DNA is the self-replicating material essential to life. But could a reconstituted form of it assist in the manufacturing of man-made products?

The idea may sound like science fiction today, but Ted Duclos offers it as a possibility of the future.

“Imagine a DNA model self-replicating itself through self-knowledge, and all we have to do is create the energy for it to grow,” he says at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars here during a session on global-manufacturing strategies.

His point is that businesses must move boldly and creatively to stay ahead. That means relying on research and development, says Duclos, vice president and general manager-Global Fluid Power Div. of auto supplier Freudenberg-NOK.

As a young engineer starting out, he found some colleagues resented R&D: “Their feeling was that they made money and R&D spent it.”

That led him to wonder if a company such as an auto supplier needed R&D. He concluded it surely does as a way to replenish proprietary innovation. A breakthrough product remains exclusive for only so long before competitors get their hands on it.

“Knowledge loses value over time,” Duclos says. “It has a way of becoming commoditized. As more people learn it, it becomes less valuable.”

That makes it vital for cutting-edge businesses to come up with the next best thing. R&D mainly holds that responsibility, although “all people in an organization should contribute to creating knowledge,” he says.

Freudenberg-NOK is the largest producer of seals and gaskets for a variety of industries, including automotive and aerospace.

The manufacturing possibilities of DNA remain strictly theoretical today, but Duclos offers two examples of existing products that drive knowledge, cut waste and promote durability.

One is the company’s Energy Saving Seals. They reduce friction and heat so much that their widespread use in vehicles would save massive amounts of oil, he says.

The second is a single-cavity mold process described as a counterintuitive approach to manufacturing that improves quality, eliminates waste and reduces inventory needs.

“Sustainability is about more than checking a box,” Duclos says of business survival. “It must be founded on the ability to develop new techniques, innovations and knowledge.”

It is a balancing act to weigh what’s now being done against what’s planned, says Swamy Kotagiri, executive vice president-corporate engineering and R&D for Magna International, an auto supplier with 300 manufacturing facilities worldwide.

“We focus on what we do today, but if you don’t change, you will be forced to,” he says. “There is incremental R&D and game-changing R&D.”

Invention matched with commercialization creates innovation, Kotagiri says, describing a company’s bottom-line need to make money. “We try to play fast and play cheap,” as well as “push the limit to take the industry to the next level.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com