Peter BigelowThe pursuit of a vision, such as a driver-free car, has invaluable benefits.

Technology development has been on a tear in the global automotive sector, an industry that could be leading all others in the development of sophisticated electronics. Event after event, the globe has been laser-focused on developments, trials and efforts underway in transportation to make this newly developed technology robust and ruggedized to operate – safely – in the varied and harsh environments automobiles operate. Virtually every system has been redesigned, with electronics and electronic sensors displacing electromechanical and mechanical components. The automobile of today is safer, quicker and more fuel-efficient than was imaginable even a decade back.

In the auto’s transition from a “hunk of bolts” to “elegant high-tech machine,” no aspect has sparked the imagination of engineers, or the greed of investors, more than the development and commercialization of the autonomous vehicle. On one level, I am amazed we are on the verge of harnessing an array of technology that could more safely transport people and cargo than a skilled, experienced driver. But on a different level, I am highly skeptical of the commercial viability of autonomous vehicles. This skepticism is rooted in a simple question: Who really wants an autonomous vehicle?

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Peter BigelowFaced with a host of software and machines, is a data-driven electronics shop a pipe dream?

Over the December holidays I had an epiphany: My company is just like a Christmas tree!

My epiphany occurred amid the annual ritual of putting up holiday decorations. Like every year over the past decades, a freshly cut tree is proudly lugged into a prominent place in the house. In a water-filled stand the tree majestically fills the room with a rich pine smell as decorations are pulled from storage and readied to adorn it. When decorating a Christmas tree, the first step is putting the lights on. And every year that begins by taking lights that worked flawlessly the previous year, unraveling them and testing they still work. And like all previous years, the result is the same: most light, some do not.

This leads to the next ritual: figuring out why. This entails fidgeting with bulbs and fuses, and hours lost determining whether it would be easier to just replace one of the strings. Even with new lights, however, the problem can occur, prompting a similar ritual of triage, exploration, frustration and finally, success. “Success” often means (reluctantly) living with a tree that may have something like 588 of the 650 lights working. In the end, creative placement of decorations to camouflage the missing lights is an invaluable talent.

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Peter BigelowIs automotive, not military or space, the impetus behind today’s electronics innovation?

Never say never. Every time I even think of saying “I will never,” something happens that makes me regret it. And yet here I am, once again, admitting to another of those instances of “I will never.”

This time, I allowed my experiences and background to cloud the reality on the ground. I started my career in the shadows of NASA. That great American technological juggernaut began when Kennedy challenged us to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. Conceptually, it all seemed so simple. For generations the US government, originally through the military and later with NASA’s help, drove dramatic technological advances by investing in new technology and the materials and processes necessary to achieve them, so that besides filling their immediate needs, those technologies would eventually become commercial standards integrated into consumer products.

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Peter BigelowThe dwindling number of large, all-in-one companies belies the abundance of blooming small ones.

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Peter BigelowYour most valuable asset may be the ability to access critical information in real-time.

“What’s your company’s most valuable asset?”

It’s a question asked by customers and investors for years, perhaps decades. Yet, regardless of who is asking, or why, it always sounds like a trick question. I wonder, however, whether it is the question, or the ever-changing answer, that really is the trick!

The typical response is “our employees” or “our facility” or maybe “our customers.” All credible and understandable responses. But value, like technology, is a fickle metric.

At a recent industry event, I was looking for equipment and materials that might be valuable additions to my company’s capabilities and assets. Various mini technical presentations were on the show floor. Each lasted only a few minutes and covered everything from esoteric theory to what seemed to me at least micro-minutia on a very specific topic. Caught in foot traffic at the intersection of several booths, I paused just long enough to catch one session that was, indeed, more than thought-provoking. That presentation was on a topic I had previously little interest in, let alone understanding of: data.

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Peter BigelowIs there more to good fortune than just fate?

We often hear the names of up-and-coming companies, each with interesting (or hyped) capabilities or fresh market approaches. Ironically, those moments can prompt us to contemplate companies long gone and the factors that helped others survive. What enables success in our highly competitive, ever-changing, global industry? Is it vision, opportunity or luck?

Early in my career, I was with large, publicly traded “Fortune” listed corporations. For those just starting out, those are heady places to be. Corporate headquarters were full of bright people whose jobs were to find ways for all the many diverse plants, operations, divisions and “strategic business units” to be successful contributors to the corporate good. Top on their list was making sure all people in all facilities knew and understood that pithy document known as the corporate “vision statement.” Those succinct declarations attempt to do two things: first, to channel staff efforts toward company success, and second, to convince staff that senior management in “the ivory tower” was focused on the future.

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