#CXOTALK: Innovation and the future at Harley-Davidson

Harley's CTO explains how this iconic brand maintains its edge and offers a glimpse into the future of motorcycle technology.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Harley-Davidson logo

We all know that Harley-Davidson is one of the world's top motorcycle brands, but did you know they are also a world-class manufacturer and innovator?

Harley's Chief Technology Officer, Sean McCormack, joined me on CXOTALK to explore innovation at this iconic American brand. The co-host for this episode was fellow ZDNet columnist, Dion Hinchcliffe, who is always awesome.

The full discussion with is wide-ranging and interesting. Watch a short clip below or see the entire 45-minute conversation.

Here is an edited transcript pulled from the full dialog:

What are your areas of focus as Chief Technology Officer of Harley-Davidson?

We have a couple of different areas that I focus on, including the overall technology strategy for the company. That's looking at current trends, emerging trends, and how do we bring them in. I've got the architectural space, the innovation space; we do a lot with innovation. Global operations, including all those facilities, and dealerships. I've got all of the domestic manufacturing plants, and we have amazing technologies that are powering those plants.

Tell us about innovation at Harley?

I'll talk about three different areas. The first one is product development, in which I'm not directly involved. But if you look at product development, we have great innovations there. If you have ever heard of Live Wire, which is the electric bike concept that we put on the market and it was actually in the Avengers movie.

In the manufacturing space, we did a massive transition about five years ago, where we took our current manufacturing processes and moved them over to lean manufacturing. One of our facilities went from 42 different buildings down to one building. We put in really good things where we can build any bike, on any line, based on customer demand; lean manufacturing and real-time integration with our suppliers. The ability to do surges, based off of seasonal demands. The ability to move production up and down. So we have some good stuff in the manufacturing space.

We set up something called a Digital Innovation Counsel and have representation from all the major business units. They can bring ideas in on pretty much anything they want to pursue; we'll work with them to do a proof of concept and eventually a pilot. If there's value in that technology, then we'll help to sponsor and take it to production.

I'll give you an example of something we've done. One of the questions was to make the retail space much more engaging when people come in. More personalized and better access to information. So, we did something called the Pop-Up Shop. The concept is you have this mobile retail experience, have it up within 48 hours. When you walk in, it's got RFIDs, so you can look at a product, put it on a smart table, and the smart table will give me information on that product.

We put cameras on the outside, and people can get pictures of themselves on a motorcycle. And then that camera sends information to them and encourages them to come into the mobile retail experience.

We had a 360 dome, which is probably my favorite part. It's a 360 dome, so it's not virtual reality, it's not augmented reality. It's a truly 360-degree experience that you can go in with your friends. There's a motorcycle in there, and you can see a very picturesque ride without goggles and other stuff. You can sit there with your friends and experience it. So, some pretty neat things and we got really good feedback from everybody that was engaged in it.

What are your guiding principles in manufacturing?

We have some of the best quality products in the world and the most amazing motorcycles in the world. The focus that we have within manufacturing is how we can constantly improve that.

Also, for example, being able to deal with seasonal demand. If our customers want certain bikes how can we get them down the line as quickly as possible with the best quality possible? There is a constant focus on manufacturing and improving safety.

We drove safety issues down to over 91% in some of our plants. So it's a really big focus across the entire organization. Obviously, that's the heartbeat of Harley-Davidson.

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