Looking Beyond Regulations For Insights

Cummins’ acoustic testing center in Fridley, MN (Image credit: Cummins)

Cummins, which all but singlehandedly brought diesel engines into the 21st century, is innovating how it approaches technology and solutions development, under the tutelage of its new CTO, Jennifer Rumsey.

“Two decades ago, we knew with pretty good clarity the challenges we had to meet.”

“A regulatory standard for emissions would go into effect by so-and-so date, and if we brought the right technology to market to meet emissions and our customer’s expectations, we could grow our market,” Rumsey explained.

“Now, we have to solve more complex system-level customer needs, by embracing a more rapid innovation cycle that leverages expertise and collaboration across our business units.”

Rumsey’s predecessor, John Wall, pioneered public-private collaboration with the U.S. government to develop emissions standards in the latter part of the 20th century, which enabled Cummins to grow its diesel engine business to more than $17 billion in 2012, while reducing NOx and particulate emissions by 99%.

It could be argued that the standards provided an innovation challenge on which the company could differentiate itself, but that they’ve since stabilized at near-zero levels in leading emissions markets like the U.S. and Europe, as Rumsey noted, “We continue to reduce the environmental impact of our products globally, and explore alternate energy sources.”

“But it’s no longer about proving technologies exist and can be brought to market that enable diesel engines to meet those standards.”

Now, the development challenge is to layer R&D on top of Cummins’ business units and regions, and thereby exploit its expertise and customer visibility to meet a new generation of customer needs. The approach, which internally is called the right technology matters, has three broad implications for the organization:

First, Rumsey is looking for ways to build on the company’s deep engine systems experience, which make it a credible innovator on topics such as telematics and data analytics, the utility of electrified powertrains, or the opportunities for powertrain controls.

Second, she’s considering ways to speed the traditional multi-year development cycles, as evidenced by its introduction of ADEPT — a suite of electronic controls to maximize powertrain fuel efficiency in the vehicle — which was launched in less than half the typical product development cycle time, and has been positioned as a “first generation” offering that will be iterated in market.

Third, the company’s presence in more than 190 countries gives it the opportunity to take innovations (or requirements met) in one market, and apply it to others.

The big transformational idea is that Cummins can elevate from its engine and solutions focus to become an energy supplier (GE is moving in a similar direction with its intention to sell thrust instead of airplane engines alone). Doing so will require it to think and act more collaboratively.

It probably helps that Rumsey began her career at an early-state fuel cell startup in Cambridge, MA, which taught her the necessity of including diverse personalities and areas of expertise in problem-solving, and balancing it with deadlines and the other inconveniences of business reality.

“I really enjoyed it,” she remembered. “But I wanted to not only working on interesting and innovative technologies, but see the impact of what I was doing, and Cummins was already making a difference with its diesel engines when I joined in 2000.”

“We’re building on that leadership.”

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