If you’re an engineering major, you’ve probably been studying innovative products, people and companies since freshman year. But how many times have you gone behind the scenes of a company’s actual approach to innovation and got an inside look at how a game-changing technology goes from creative idea to reality? When we think of innovative engineering teams, one of the first companies that comes to mind is Gates. They’ve built a reputation as industry leaders for power transmission belts and oil and gas engineering products, but they’re also behind amazing technologies like a virtually maintenance-free replacement for bike chains called the Carbon Drive System.
To see how innovation works at Gates, we talked to Charles Ochoa, Manager of Advanced Material Development. Ochoa has worked in engineering at Gates for 26 years, so he’s the perfect person to take us behind the scenes. Here’s what he had to say:
Why did you choose to become an engineer at Gates?
When I interviewed, I found the position and technology unexpectedly challenging and interesting. I was looking for new challenges, and [working with] material and product technology gave me that opportunity.
How does Gates support innovation within its engineering team?
Obviously we’re a business, and our technology innovations must also have a business goal. When there’s enough of a business case, Gates supports the engineering team. We want to have the best technology for our customers, and our leadership supports investments in education, personnel and laboratory capabilities.
How do you come up with your most creative ideas for new products or improvements to existing products?
There are several approaches to creativity, but there’s no formula. The key is to be inquisitive and be open to thinking of new ideas at any time. In talking with other engineers, we find inspiration while jogging, walking around the factory, while working in the garage, or even while shopping at Walmart. Inspiration can be where you least expect it.
What was your favorite Gates product to work on and why?
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed working on automotive applications the most. Working directly with most of the major car manufacturers in the world on new technologies that will be in our future automobiles is very exciting.
What do you consider to be the first step to building a new product?
Gates, like many companies that design and develop new products, has its own product development systems. But I would bet that all successful companies determine the Voice of the Customer (VOC) early in their process. Listening to what your customer wants and transforming that into engineering specifications and ultimately the product the customer is happy with is the first step, and should be a consistent theme throughout the development process.
What is the product development process like? How long does it typically take to go from initial idea to completed product?
We use the Stage Gate® process, and like many, our processes include brainstorming, Six Sigma tools, design validation, etc. It is a cross-functional process, with many people who contribute to the product’s success. There are many levels of complexity, so some product development can be a 6-month process, while inventing completely new material chemistry can take two years or more.
What are the most important things to keep in mind during the product development process?
I’ve found that the most important things are:
- Clear goals
- Clear leadership
- Understanding the voice of the customer
What is the most memorable thing you’ve learned as a Gates engineer?
Teamwork. My most significant developments have come as a result of working with a great team. With outstanding teamwork and leadership, we can accomplish amazing things.
What advice do you have for aspiring Gates engineers?
I know this sounds old-fashioned, but throughout a career in product development, there will be failures. But these failures can lead to your best successes and your best educational opportunities. How you handle failures and successes is important. Also, “soft” skills like listening, communication, personal integrity and overall work ethic will be at least as important as your technical capabilities.
Want to join Charles Ochoa and the innovative team of Gates engineers? They’re hiring now! Check out open positions at Gates on the righthand side of this page.