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Reading the tea leaves

Reading the tea leaves

Harrisburg, PA--Design engineers and others involved in product development typically are so engrossed with day-to-day pressures that they rarely can find time to ponder forces that will shape their technology beyond the current year.

Fortunately, more OEMs and OEM suppliers are trying to peer beyond the immediate horizon by setting up special multidisciplinary futures groups, which include engineers. Typical is AMP's eight-person FutureView Group, established four years ago by William Hudson, CEO of the connector giant.

"We began as a group dedicated to addressing the problems that kept our top corporate officers awake at night," notes Jack Usner, the AMP VP who directs FutureView. "But increasingly, we are serving more and more parts of the company, including global business leaders and those involved with technology-to-market issues."

The problems that FutureView has shed light on range from questions such as how AMP should divide future investments among fiber-optic, wireless, and traditional copper-based product to how the firm should operate in emerging markets like Poland.

In pursuing such issues, the FutureView Group relies on a wide arsenal of tools. In one approach, they analyze contrasting scenarios for their industry, such as the impact on the connector business if telecommunications becomes highly privatized versus tightly controlled by central governments.

They also engage in "systems thinking," in which they analyze the effect on AMP's products of such overriding forces as globalization, tougher environmental controls, and the demands of consumers for fast delivery and customization.

Benchmarking other firms is key, particularly when it comes to considering how corporate cultures change when a company broadens its product mix to become a "systems provider." In still other instances, the FutureView Group uses the Delphi method, in which they seek the opinions of a broad range of experts.

Similarly the group relies on extensive interviewing within AMP to identify crucial "strategic questions." An example might be: "What is the value of intellectual property in the information age? Is it better to spend time and resources defending a patent versus rushing a product to market?" Another such question: "How much outsourcing should we do, versus preserving our core technology?"

In pursuing such questions, the FutureView Group has studied trends that hold threats and opportunities for many OEMs. For example:

- Technology convergence. Increasingly, companies will join forces to develop products faster than they could operating alone.

- Simplicity industries. Many products, such as computers, have become far too complex. There will be a big market for companies that can make technical products more user friendly.

- Bio-engineering. Organic molecular structures hold the potential for enormous data storage capacities, which could revolutionize connectors and other electromechanical products.

- Lifestyle industries. The consumer electronics field will surge with countless niche products, ranging from personal digital assistants to Internet technologies.

Not every company, of course, can afford to employ a full-time futures group. Yet Usner cautions that no company can remain a market leader if it does not make a strong commitment to look ahead. "Half of the future is what you want it to be," says Usner. "The other half is coping with the forces that stand in your way."

E-mail: [email protected]

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