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How Ford turned thousands of employees into inventors

Henry Ford may be credited with inventing the moving assembly line, but the auto company that bears his name wanted to be more inventive still. Just a few years ago, other major automakers were being granted nearly twice as many patents as Ford per year from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

To jump-start its inventive culture, the company implemented a number of internal initiatives, from altering its financial incentives for inventors to creating companywide innovation challenges. The efforts appear to be paying off. As of Tuesday, Ford is poised to have more U.S. utility patents granted this year than any other automaker, according to agency data.

These patents include a flying drone that acts as a lookout for your self-driving car. A filter that purifies air conditioner condensation into drinkable water. And, more recently, an electric wheelchair that loads itself into the car.

In all, Ford has been granted 1,478 utility patents since Jan. 1, almost double the number of patents it was granted just two years ago.

“An inventive culture is something that pays very long-term dividends, even more than short-term. If a company can support that culture, it can ultimately be better prepared to anticipate and react to market conditions,” said Stephanie Brinley, a senior automotive analyst at IHS Markit. “This is why it is important to Ford to foster innovation.”

Ford Global Technologies chief executive Bill Coughlin, who oversees the company’s intellectual property matters, outlined several of the cultural changes the company has made in recent years during an interview with The Washington Post’s Innovations blog.

Turn more employees into inventors

Bold innovations traditionally come from companies’ research and development departments, where highly trained engineers bring their education and experience to bare on a problem. Coughlin says Ford has embraced the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere in the company and has encouraged employees to step forward. (More on that encouragement in a minute.)

More than 5,500 Ford employees put forth ideas so far this year, including about 2,200 first-time inventors, according to the company. More than 4,000 first-time inventors have submitted ideas since January 2015.

“We weren’t targeting just an increase in inventions, we were targeting an increase in Ford inventors,” Coughlin said. “Once you start thinking like an inventor, you cannot turn that off. Problems become opportunities, and it’s a fun game that you can play in your mind on how to solve this in a new and different way.”

“Once a person becomes a true inventor, they’re going to invent again and again,” he added.

Give employees incentive to invent

Employees with promising ideas are gifted a three-month membership to TechShop, a maker space with computers and other equipment that can be used to turn ideas into prototypes. The experience of bringing an idea into existence often helps employees to discover and work through problems they didn’t detect on paper, Coughlin said.

“It’s much tougher for management to say no to a good solution when they actually see it working,” he added.

Of course, money is also a motivator for employees-turned-inventors. In 2011, Ford changed its financial compensation for inventors, Coughlin said.

“We have a variety of financial incentives, so at each step of the process the employee gets a monetary award, including they get to participate in any license income that we receive from licensing out a patent that they’re an inventor on,” he said.

Literally challenge employees to invent something

For each of the past three years, Ford has hosted a companywide challenge that calls on employees to submit ideas for new products or changes to the company’s existing offerings. Those are winnowed down to finalists who ultimately create prototypes of their idea, develop a business case, and present the result to company executives.

Once the challenge is done, the winners aren’t just awarded a certificate or some prize money, Coughlin said. The company provides them with resources to carry the idea forward. That’s how one of the company’s engineers, who has more than 70 patents over his career, pitched the idea for On-The-GO H2O, the filtration system that brings drinkable water to your car console.

“It’s a great way to help them develop professionally and spread the Silicon Valley-like mind-set that [Ford chief executive] Mark Fields wants us all to have,” he said.

Have a strong internal review process

Ford employees have submitted more than 8,000 ideas for patents so far this year, according to the company. The sheer volume requires a vetting and quality assurance process that even Coughlin admits has been stretched as Ford encourages more employees to invent.

“I wish we could tell you we hired more attorneys. I’m waiting for the mutiny to happen at any moment,” Coughlin said, jokingly.

Ideas are reviewed by a panel of engineers who determine which ones are worth patent protection and might be pursued commercially. The company then turns to its own attorneys and an outside firm to manage the legal hurdles of filing a patent and ushering it through the approval process.

“We don’t want to spend our money foolishly, so we’re very careful about what we file,” Coughlin said.

Ford’s net income was down slightly during the first nine months of this year, coming to nearly $5.4 billion at the end of September compared to $5.5 billion the prior year, according to financial statements.

Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovation section