Beth Burger The Columbus Dispatch

Jan 6, 2019 at 4:54 AM

A sculpture made of abstract glass pieces glows on a platform at the entrance of The Forge, the name the smart-tech startup Pillar uses for its space on the edge of Downtown.

“We ask people to say what it is. What do you see?” said Bob Myers, who is managing director of Pillar, an Accenture Industry X.0 company. “There are no wrong answers.”

The sculpture is supposed to activate left-brain thinking, spurring creative and innovative ideas on projects completed at the smart-tech hub, he said.

“When people come into The Forge, we want a no-constraints frame of mind. It doesn’t mean that there’s not restraints. Let’s just not start there,” Myers said.

Innovation is key for the smart-tech company, which has been involved in some of Columbus‘ biggest projects: Smart Columbus and research toward autonomous vehicles. The company works to catapult businesses ahead in their respective markets through modernization and smart technology, in some cases moving businesses toward a subscription-service model.

Completed company projects include helping build a self-driving tractor for John Deere precision farming and converting solar power directly to DC devices for Bosch. Before Pillar stepped in, Bosch was converting AC to DC power sources and losing 30 percent of power.

“Every object out there is becoming a connected device. It’s got Wi-Fi. It’s got Bluetooth. It’s got sensors in it. And if it’s not connected today, it will be connected in the near future,” said Silicon Valley-based Craig McNeil, North American lead for Accenture Industry X.0. “What that does is it puts our clients in a position where they’ve got to adapt to that.”

So far, that innovation has paid off. Inside The Forge, there are no executive offices. Developers work in teams at tables.

In April, Columbus City Council approved a $2.5 million contract with Pillar to develop the operating system to share and analyze data on transportation technologies for Smart Columbus.

“What was really satisfying from a Smart Columbus perspective is we were able to find the talent in Columbus to help us build this operating system,” said Michael Stevens, chief innovation officer for the city of Columbus.

In May, Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order in hopes of making Ohio a leader in developing autonomous cars. As a result, a $2 million grant was awarded to Pillar, which is developing a research and development center for autonomous vehicles.

In August, the privately-owned, Columbus-based company then called Pillar Technology was purchased by Accenture for an undisclosed amount. Myers was the CEO before the sale. The company originally started in 1996 with a small group of employees working out of their homes. 

It’s already outgrowing The Forge, which is located in the Smith Brothers Hardware Co. building at 580 N. 4th St. Company officials said plans are underway to relocate to The Lincoln building at 711 N. High St. in the Short North, where it will occupy several floors of space.

If you haven’t heard of Pillar before, that’s, in part, by design.

“It‘s been more about doing the work and not about the recognition. Now that they‘ve delivered on the work for quite a long time for a significant number of companies across the country, now people are starting to see and recognize (them),” Stevens said of the company.

The company does not disclose who its clients are during active projects, Myers said.

General Motors plans to cease the production of the Chevy Cruze in March at the Lordstown plant in northeastern Ohio as part of a larger plan to reconfigure and refocus the vehicle manufacturer. The company will move toward autonomous and electric vehicles. Some 14,000 jobs are expected to be lost nationwide.

Developing technology through an autonomous vehicle center in Columbus could lead to securing jobs in Ohio, said Steve Yaffe, vice president of growth and client solutions for Pillar.

“We are growing at a rapid pace. We could be growing faster if we could identify more talent,” he said. “So if some of those individuals we could put into an apprentice-type training program and give them new knowledge-based job skills, then that’s going to be a win-win situation for them, us and the state of Ohio.”

Autonomous vehicles could “happen faster than you probably think,” Myers said.

Expect some big changes then. Personal car ownership will go away, he said, and you’ll subscribe to a car service that will be delivered to your home when you want to use it.

He estimates self-parking valet technology, where cars are able to park themselves with the push of a button, will be rolled out in the next two years.

“Hopefully it will be in Columbus. That’s what we’re doing the research center for,” Myers said.

Autonomous vehicles will likely first happen on highways in semis traveling in platoons, following a lead vehicle.

The pressure among the competition is a constant threat. It’s that pressure that leads companies to seek out their expertise, McNeil said.

“They are in fear of completely going out of business. Not having a down quarter. Not missing a trend, but they are recognizing they are going to be the next Blockbuster if they don’t actually make the change,” McNeil said.

He said Accenture wanted to acquire Pillar because of the company’s ability to write code on top of its background making all kinds of chipsets and devices.

McNeil said he walks two blocks from his home to his office in Silicon Valley and passes operations that have drawn billions of dollars in investments.

“I don’t see the rigor and discipline I see here in Columbus, Ohio. And that’s hard to do,” he said. “Yes, they bring a skillset and capability, but they also brought a lot of methodology and secret sauce to the table.”

 

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