An Interview with Caterpillar CTO Tom Bluth

Tom Bluth has been with Caterpillar for nearly 25 years in leadership roles with Legal Services, the Latin America and North America Commercial Divisions, Caterpillar France, Asia Pacific Operations, Earthmoving, and Surface Mining & Technology. In July 2017, he was named the company’s chief technology officer (CTO) and vice president with responsibility for the Innovation and Technology Development Division. iBi spoke with Tom about his responsibilities as CTO and how Caterpillar prioritizes research and development (R&D).

As chief technology officer at Caterpillar, what are you responsible for?
I’m responsible for stewarding the company’s research and development investments, as well as driving product development excellence and recruiting the next generation of Caterpillar engineers and technical experts. It’s really an exciting role, especially right now, as Caterpillar is focused on growing our products, services and solutions through technology.

How do you prioritize R&D dollars?
The business really does that for us. We have a team of senior engineers from across the company that we call our Senior Technology Leader Forum. These leaders listen to our customers and their needs, and then use that information to guide where we make our R&D investments. Of course, we also make some strategic technology bets, if you will, but they are also guided by a deep understanding of our customers.

What is the company’s technology strategy focused on?
In short, our technology strategy is focused on our customers and helping them work safely and more efficiently. Specifically, we focus on five enabling technologies that will help our customers win:

  1. Aftermarket enabling technologies to ensure our customer support doesn’t end after a sale is made and we continue to provide support throughout the entire life cycle of our products;
  2. Automation and autonomy to provide a range of features from operator assist to full autonomous operation to effectively run a job site;
  3. High-efficiency energy conversion and electrification to increase power density, expand the use of alternative fuels, maximize efficiency of power systems and introduce electrification into our product lines while significantly decreasing owning and operating costs;
  4. Digital: connected assets and analytics to help our customers manage and monitor their assets, whether they own one Cat product or a fleet of hundreds; and
  5. Competitive product development using the right processes and tools to ensure the highest quality, and fast-paced innovation to get our products into the hands of customers when they need them. Our product development involves simulation, advanced materials, advanced manufacturing processes and much more.

How is the technology strategy executed?
The technology strategy is executed through the aligned efforts of our global team of expert engineers, technologists, manufacturing professionals, etc. From a technology’s origins in our research teams, to its full development and deployment into our business units, to the teams who physically make our products, our New Product Introduction (NPI) process was designed to effectively execute Caterpillar’s technology strategy. Our structured NPI process expedites the development of our products and solutions, ensures high quality and allows us to deliver the technology our customers’ need when—and sometimes before—they need it.

What does Caterpillar’s R&D footprint look like?
The Peoria area—Mossville, Morton, Peoria, East Peoria, Mapleton and Edwards—is Caterpillar’s largest research and development, product and technology development hub. At the same time, we have engineers working around the world to design, simulate, analyze, evaluate and validate products and processes to ensure they will provide the maximum value to customers. Globally, we employ approximately 11,000 engineers and over 350 PhD-level scientists and technology experts. We hold more than 15,000 active patents/applications and engineer our products on nearly every continent.

What are the biggest challenges facing Caterpillar technology development today? What are the biggest opportunities?
Speed is always the biggest challenge. In a company the size of Caterpillar, it can be hard to move as quickly as our customers need us to. We’re employing methodologies like Agile development to help us move faster, while staying connected to the customer along the way.

As far as opportunities, I think electrification, digital and autonomy hold the most potential for our customers, as well as harnessing data that helps them work smarter. It’s my goal that our customers can make more money with our products, services and solutions than they can with any competitor.

In your time with the company, what technical advancements stand out as having the most significant impact on customers and the company?
There are so many to choose from, so let me just highlight a few. Certainly, one example is how we’ve been able to creatively meet increasingly stringent emissions regulations while enhancing value for our customers. It has been a real team effort, leveraging world-class systems integration. I’m also very proud of our progress in moving from product solutions to really delivering site-based productivity solutions for our customers. We work alongside customers to help them improve performance across the site—leveraging machines, technologies, services and our combined expertise to create holistic solutions that optimize operations, improve safety and reduce costs. Finally, I’ll mention connectivity and leveraging data for our customers. We have more than 600,000 connected assets around the world, and we use the data from them to improve operator safety, equipment availability and site productivity.

Why do engineers, technical experts and innovative thinkers choose to work for Caterpillar?
Our purpose at Caterpillar is to deliver solutions that help our customers build a better world. Our engineers and technical experts get to directly impact that. I think that’s exciting. Our diverse, global team works together to solve customer problems and harness emerging technologies to help them improve safety, sustainability and efficiency. Because of our broad product portfolio and growing services and solutions, engineers have career opportunities here they just wouldn’t have in other companies. iBi

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