John Reid took the path less traveled to his role as vice president of enterprise technologies at Brunswick Corp. Along the way, he has remained on the leading edge of emerging technology.
Reid started his career in academia. He was a professor at the University of Illinois for 14 years, applying technology such as GPS and automation to farming and farm management. These AGTech systems, developed in the ’90s, are now widely used throughout the farming industry.
For the next two decades, Reid worked for farm-equipment manufacturer Deere & Co., further leveraging his experience at the crossroads of product tech, autonomy and electrification. As the director of enterprise product innovation and technology, and as a technical fellow at Deere, he helped to create the company’s strategy for automation and autonomous machine systems.
Today, Reid is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is the immediate past chair of the Innovation Research Interchange. An avid boater, Reid’s “lake lifestyle” on Smith Mountain Lake in the Roanoke region of Virginia is something he cherishes and is passing to his grandchildren.
You joined Brunswick just after its debut presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show early this year. Did you see the display?
Not in person, but I have seen all the renderings and pictures of it. I did follow the success of Brunswick’s CES exhibit online and got to hear CEO Dave Foulkes’ media event and other announcements along the way. And later, I was able to see the helm from CES and get on the Sea Ray SLX-R 400E in Miami to experience it firsthand. Some of my enterprise technologies team members were part of the core team that was instrumental in the success Brunswick had at CES 2020.
What most impressed you about Brunswick before you joined the team?
One of the top things that impressed me was the ACES vision (autonomy, connectivity, electrification and shared access) and the goal for the organization of delivering frictionless recreational marine experiences. It was also important to me that many of the necessary ingredients to build this vision were already a part of the organization.
You have three decades of technology leadership experience. Tell us about your time as a professor focusing on automation research.
For most of my life — actually, since I was a student in seventh grade — I was consistently on a pathway of automation in agriculture. I developed a vision-based guidance system in the mid-’80s as part of a team at Texas A&M. After I graduated and arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my research took some alternative directions: modeling plant growth and development, control of fermentation processes, etc. Then, eventually, the technologies for automation in agriculture became more realistic for scaled production with the advancement of electronics technologies.
There was also a real breakthrough provided by commercialization for civilian uses of the GPS network; this accelerated automatic guidance in agriculture. These ingredients led to a number of opportunities for automation to increase the productivity and convenience for the farmer.
Back in the ’90s, my colleagues and I were also working on how information layers coupled with automation to drive further levels of productivity and convenience. From about 2012 to today, these digital technologies are being realized at scale in agriculture and construction.
Describe your work at Deere & Co. on automation and autonomous machine systems.
John Deere has been at the leading edge of automation and digital transformation, so it was a great experience for me working there. I worked in two roles over my 19-year career. For the first five years, I was part of a technology team that built expertise in field robotics technologies. These are similar to the technologies required for the “A” — and even “C” and “S” — in ACES.
In addition to being a leader in building the organizational technology road map, my team focused on machine perception technologies, and the role that sensors and processing played in machine automation. We had many interesting projects that built from a common architecture, which allowed us to grow the ability to deliver solutions more quickly over time. Some solution examples we delivered included assisted tractor-implement operations, autonomous mowing, a tractor-based peat-moss harvesting solution, and others; we even had a venture applying these technologies for autonomous utility vehicles for the military.
In my last 14 years at John Deere, I was directly involved in the challenges in the repeatable execution of technology innovation. The focus on technology is important, but it is critical to understand how technology meets an articulated or unarticulated customer need. And even having worked through customer needs, there are execution challenges for business delivery, especially where new organizational capabilities are required. To help build these capabilities, my role was responsible for enterprise investments to build the technical capabilities for critical technology areas (including electrification, connectivity and automation), as well as the advancement of traditional technologies required for design and manufacturing. As part of that, my colleagues and I built a global network of technology innovation centers in each of the key geographies of the business.
What advantages do heavy-construction and agriculture equipment have over similar smart systems on boats? Are there more factors to consider on the water?
The two businesses are very different but can leverage similar technologies. Agriculture was able to benefit from early automation as a result of automatic guidance. Smart systems for off-road are acutely focused on how technologies can deliver customer value in terms of productivity and uptime. The general domain of marine applications may have some of that, but in recreational marine, the focus is more about helping our customers enjoy their on-water experiences in different ways. Boating has additional complexity that is greater than agriculture/construction, and even on-road, in many ways. For example, there is a more degrees-of-freedom for travel, and many forms of marine vessels can be in the water.
Do you see some on-road systems, including smart systems on automobiles, trickling down to the marine industry?
Most of the technologies have opportunities to transition across application domains. And our customers have started to expect it, since they see related technologies in their cars and other aspects of everyday life. Most of us desire an experience that is well-defined and similar across our different uses of technology. The world is focused on everything being seamlessly connected.
If you look at the marine industry against automotive or aerospace, there are already quite a few similarities that many people may not realize. Brunswick has joystick piloting, Nautic-On and VesselView mobile, along with CZone. We have the Fathom battery technology, and we have Freedom Boat Club. There are a lot of synergies between all three verticals.
How does your prior work relate to Brunswick’s marine technology suite, such as VesselView, and the concept helm shown at CES with autonomous operation and gesture recognition?
I have been particularly active in blending what is possible in the future with the products and services that are core to the business today. What I am most interested in is following the wow of cool technology with the pow of transitioning it into commercialization. Customers don’t simply want to see the cool things; they want access to them. We have to not lose focus on transition and delivery.
In what areas is Brunswick a technology leader? Where do you think the company needs to focus its energies?
Brunswick has the leading engine company in Mercury Marine, the largest portfolio of boat companies in the world, the largest global parts and accessories businesses, and the largest boat club. Brunswick has a number of elements that make us a marine-industry technology leader. We have also recently created centers of excellence, blending the top talent not just in our organization, but around the world, to ensure that we remain on the cutting edge of technology, not just marine technology.
One of the many reasons we participated in CES is because we don’t just want to lead the marine industry; we want to be on par with the tech leaders of the world. By maintaining the focus on delivering solutions enabled by the ACES strategy, we will help Brunswick sustain technology leadership. And I am extremely excited to support and lead this.
How will Brunswick stay focused on the ACES program?
Focus is the critical word here. From my experience, the challenge is identifying the technology pathways that are critical to the business, then getting everyone to focus on these. We will stay focused on these by developing strategic innovation road maps that help us align our technical capabilities with solutions that meet our customer expectations. Linking our capabilities to the products and service we deliver is a critical driver for achieving our future vision.
In what ways do you think connectivity will continue to improve?
Connectivity could be one of the least-appreciated of the ACES capabilities, but one of the critical components for executing the vision. Connectivity and the related digital ecosystem enable new value-added services and provide a tighter feedback loop on the performance of our product and service offerings. It is important to stay flexible on the technology strategies, as the overarching trend is that connectivity continuously is expanding.
A robust connectivity strategy will enable us to adapt quickly to take advantage of them for our customers and business. People have certain expectations in their car and in their homes. When they go into a boat, they have those same expectations. You would never buy a car without a backup camera now. You would never buy a car where there wasn’t electric windows. Everything in homes today is “smart.” The boating experience must be the same.
How will this strategy move throughout the Brunswick model lines? Will the Fathom e-Power system be the first example implemented in other boats?
One element of being the leader is driving scale across the organization that others can’t replicate. Fathom is a great example of a solution that helps provide a differentiating experience through giving customers the ability to enjoy their experiences on the water without worrying about power management, and managing generators and batteries. This opens up our thinking for delivering power management solutions across a variety of recreational marine use cases.
How will you work with Brunswick’s business acceleration units to develop technology plans for boats?
Business acceleration is a phenomenal capability that is unique in our industry to Brunswick. It is an arm that allows us to access inorganic growth and bring in capabilities that help us achieve ACES. Additionally, business acceleration is our first stand in achieving the “S” in ACES.
Shared access, building from Freedom Boat Club, is a critical pathway for developing and exploring business model innovations into the future. It also provides a home for many of the technology companies that we have a minority investment in. These companies, like Sea Machines, Anglr, Catch Co. and others, are so closely connected to our industry and the next generation of boaters.
What is the next generation of boaters looking for in terms of technology and experience?
Customers want products and services that provide customer value, and technology is only an enabler for delivering customer value. I think, in all cases, it is better if the customer is focused on the experience that technology has enabled, rather than the technology itself.
How is Brunswick leveraging its business holdings to meet these customers’ expectations?
Brunswick is exciting because of the component brands connected to recreational marine. Our traditional capabilities, of course, are based off of Mercury’s leadership in propulsion and control, coupled with the various brands of the Brunswick Boat Group. Our Advanced Systems Group of parts and accessories provides a core enabler for the various systems solutions that make our boats unique. On top of all of this, we have business acceleration to go beyond our products and services, and develop our opportunities for new business models, like shared access.
Is Nautic-On a big part of this?
Nautic-On is an element of the “C” in ACES: connectivity. Being connected is a fundamental enabler of the digital transformation that will open up new opportunities to enhance our current offerings and enable new business model opportunities.
What external technology companies have become important partners?
We have several strategies to find the right partners. One approach is to create synergy through TechNexus, which connected us with the great work Sea Machines is leading in autonomy, or Catch Co. is doing in attracting the future boater. Another type of partnership is through our research universites. i-Jet in the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign Research Park, which connects us to students and the new talent pipeline, can support our internal capabilities. And finally, another way is through our internal technology sensing and planning work, which ties back to the success of the 2020 CES exhibit.
How does all of this technology improve safety?
I feel that if we truly deliver frictionless customer experiences, we improve safety for our customers. The technology can enable our use of a boat so that the performance is more consistent and responsive to the outcomes that we want. Technology helps make it easier for us to get on and off the water, and to maximize our enjoyment in a safe, reliable way. One good example is Active Trim. Trimming an engine is easy for a seasoned pro, but not so much for the average boater. With Active Trim, you push a button, and the engine trims for you. That means less time worrying about that and more time focusing on the safety of those on the boat.
You are a longtime boater. What’s your perfect day on the water?
My family particularly loves our lake lifestyle on Smith Mountain Lake in southwest Virginia. We use our boat to ski and cruise, and to access places where we play in the water. What my wife and I love the most is that our children, and now grandchildren, have built into the things they love to do each year with us. It is a part of their life that they will carry to future generations.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.