Installed Audio

Harman’s Andy Flint teases immersive audio news, insights on the install sector, AI trends and innovation

Andy Flint, senior vice president of global product development for Harman Professional talks about his career at Harman so far, the challenges facing the industry, the role of AI, and key topics and trends.

Tell us about your education background; how did that lead you to where you are today?

My education is actually a little bit odd for the role that I've got today. I started with a marketing degree and then I got my master's in marketing and international management. I always thought I was going to be a marketing whiz and had these grand plans of living in a big city and doing big marketing campaigns. Ultimately, I found my way into Harman and got started on the product side of the business doing a little bit of marketing, but mostly product management.

What was the transition like going from marketing to product management and development?

It was an easy transition actually because my first role at Harman was as a business development specialist with Crown Audio. The way that Harman was organized at the time, it was set up so that product management and marketing were a combined function. 

So, I was coming into a department where there was a little bit of marketing and a little bit of sales and account management happening. When I got a role in product management, I was able to use some of my marketing skills, and having a marketing degree was what got me into a department that had a little bit of everything. That was what launched me in getting exposure to the product side of the business.

What we bring to the market over the next 12 months is going to help the industry take a big step forward.

When did you get your start at Harman at Crown Audio, and what drew you to the world of power amplifiers?

I started in October of 2004. It was my first job right out of college. Music has always been a part of my life; I've always enjoyed it and I taught myself how to play guitar back in the day.

Moving into the manufacturing side, I was looking for a job and actually – I still remember – my dad gave me a newspaper clipping (back in the day when people read newspapers!) that had a job posted for Crown Audio for a business development specialist. It talked about Guitar Center and Sweetwater and places that I knew from my personal life, and that sounded really interesting. I interviewed and the rest is history!

Tell me about your current role as senior vice president of global product development for Harman Professional; what does that entail and what do you oversee?

It's a pretty broad role. My first and most important role is – we call it GPLM – and it stands for global product line management. Globally, I manage all of our product management functions: audio, video and lighting. We've got a department of roughly 55-ish product managers globally, spread out between Los Angeles, Dallas, Aarhus, India, China and the UK – we’ve got a pretty broad team.

The second part of that role is what we call project management, so I lead our project management team globally. Those are the folks that are responsible for driving our projects through the different gates and making sure that we get from concept to mass production.

The last piece of it is managing our five-year strategy cycle. Being part of Samsung and Harman has a lot of requirements around how we manage the business on a five-year rolling cycle, driving strategy throughout the organization and managing that process.

There's probably not one single customer that I meet with on a global basis that says: I need AI!

What is a typical day in the life of a product development team leader?

A little bit of everything! The biggest thing that I focus on is keeping our projects moving, so at any one time across our global organization we've got roughly 50 projects that are ongoing. It's everything from review meetings, to reviewing investments and business cases, to clearing hurdles for the team. It's a pretty exciting role to be in; you're right in the middle of the action.

At Harman Pro a lot of what we do as a business really starts with the product and the product concept. So not only is it very diverse on a daily basis, but it's a really interesting action-packed part of the organization where a lot of what we do as a business starts in the product world. It certainly keeps it interesting! 

Like I said, being involved in not just the audio business – which is a major piece of what we do – but being involved in the lighting and the video and trying to put these things together and make a cohesive strategy out of it is really exciting.

As a company, what are the current challenges facing the overall industry?

That is a big question. If you think about how our business is organized, it's pretty broad and I would say compared to most that we compete with, the portfolio is much broader and much deeper.

We tend to segment, so from the customer perspective you have what we call retail, touring or production, and then install – so those are the three categories that we manage and each one has its challenges. I would say the biggest challenge that we're working through, and I think the industry is working through, is on the install side of the business. That's everything from a small coffee shop to big stadiums and large public transit facilities, and trying to put together audio, video and control into a cohesive system.

Today, it's piecemeal across a bunch of different companies, brands and different technologies. One of the really interesting things that we're trying to solve internally, and I think everyone in the industry externally is trying to solve, is how do we make these big systems easier? Not only to configure and control, but to deploy. So, it’s the whole value chain of, “How do you do a large system that encompasses everything on one converged network?” It’s a pretty interesting challenge.

the biggest challenge the industry is working through is on the install side of the business.

How do you begin to tackle such a challenge?

We have an advantage on the Harman side because we own all the different pieces of the system. JBL is the largest loudspeaker manufacturer in the industry; Crown Audio is the largest amplifier manufacturer; BSS has this very rich history in DSP and signal processing, and then AMX handles the video and control perspective. We have all of the disciplines in a way that you would want them, so that's one big advantage that we've got.

Where you start is on the product concept side, so as we move to that next generation of product, we’re making clean decisions on things like digital audio, having the ability to put everything on one control network and using standard networking. Picking Linux as a good example for security and having a very defined security protocol. As you can imagine, that's super important.

Everyone is talking about AI at the moment and the implications it has for all kinds of technologies and by knock on effect, people’s roles as it gets more and more refined. What are the challenges or benefits concerning the role of AI in technology that the company is keeping tabs on at the moment?

As a technology person and someone who's in charge of making sure that we're investing in the latest and greatest technology, I always laugh a little bit when AI comes up because I think it's such a broad topic. It can mean a lot of different things to everyone. I think most of us are very used to what dominates the news, which is ChatGPT. We're cautious at the moment.

From an engineering perspective we're already looking into leveraging AI tools, not only for the customers’ benefit, but also internally. There's certainly a ton of benefits on development in terms of software where you can use ChatGPT to help write some code. In its most basic form, that's something that everybody can say: there's probably a lot of efficiencies around code writing and leveraging AI for that.

I tend to think of AI through the lens of what the customer is asking for. There's probably not one single customer that I meet with on a global basis that says, ‘I need AI!’ AI is not a feature. So, I think it's more, “How do we leverage these tools to benefit the customer through things like, can we build a system quickly for them?” 

Let's take a stadium, for example, we typically take weeks upon weeks, if not months of programming to design and control one of these systems; perhaps you can use AI to get you there quicker. That's probably the one challenge I see from an industry perspective: how does it not turn into a parlor trick or a gimmick? How do we use it to solve problems in the industry?

this industry is a product business: It starts with getting the product right.

What are some key topics and trends in the field?

The biggest trend that I see that our industry has been trying to push is immersive. On the audio side, certainly we saw it from a cinema perspective, and from a recording and broadcast perspective you're seeing a lot of new content generated from a recording perspective in terms of immersive. But really, when I say immersive, I'm talking about the live real-time immersive.

Some of our competitors are making investments there; we're making some big investments as well in this area. Something’s coming and we're close. It's a really unique problem to solve, because you have to do it in real time.

A lot of times when we think about immersive from a consumer perspective or even from a cinema perspective, you're playing back content that's already been mixed and is immersive, so when you start talking about live immersive at some of these bigger shows or big entertainment venues, you're doing it in real time, which requires some unique algorithms and interesting software to make it all work in real time.

You can see where the industry wants to go, which is these big entertainment spaces, these big venues, or even something as small as a coffee shop or a gym, and being able to do something that's more immersive, interesting and more entertaining. It is definitely something that the industry wants to do – it’s a challenge to go and solve that in a practical way.

The biggest trend our industry has been trying to push is immersive.

What are some key things you’ve learned from your career at Harman so far?

This year I’m going into my 20th year with Harman. It was awesome starting at Crown because it was a global business, but it was small enough that I could get a very global perspective of what's going on. I got to be really involved in things like key account management and learning that skill set at a pretty manageable sales, revenue and scale level.

It’s vastly different from the role I have today. The biggest thing that I've learned through all of it is that this industry, and our business in particular, is a product business. It starts with getting the product right. I've seen a lot of times where you've got a mediocre product and amazing marketing, and it doesn't really go anywhere, or you've got an amazing product and mediocre marketing, and it does great despite everything else around it.

Obviously, the ideal is that you get the marketing, sales and the product all working together. But getting the product right is really key. Speaking from a product perspective, the more that you get outside of the core of what one of these brands are and the core of what we do, the harder it becomes. You see it in business a lot: the more that you drift away from the core of what you do, what your specialty is and what you're known for, the more difficult it becomes.

What is the most fulfilling project you have worked on?

It would be hard to not pick one of the opportunities that I had when I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago to work with the JBL Professional brand. One of the first projects I got to do was the redo of the JBL EON. The EON has played such a major role in live sound; it was the first portable powered product in the industry. Then to get to do the next generation…. It really revived the JBL Professional brand. 

The EON600 was really exciting to work on – it's such a challenge from a cost perspective and packing all the technology into it, being one of the first products at that price point to have an app and Bluetooth. It was a great challenge, but it was also a really cool reward to be part of such a historical product in the industry.

EON has played such a major role in live sound; it was the first portable powered product in the industry.

What is it that allows Harman to be innovative as a manufacturer?

The intent and driving force behind what we do is that we do like to innovate; we spend a significant amount of money on engineering per year. The number that we spend on engineering is typically more than a lot of the brands that we compete with in the industry. I always remind everybody, if we're talking about loudspeakers, we're still developing our own transducers, we're still developing our own horns and acoustic designs, we're still developing patents every year.

The same thing with amplifiers – we're doing the amplifier design – and on the BSS side, we're doing all the DSP and the algorithm work. You see that play out across the entire portfolio, whether we're talking about lighting, video or control at AMX – we are actually developing real products ourselves, and we take it very seriously that we're progressing the industry each time that we do a new product.

If you look at all the brands, most of them are 40, 50, even 70 or 80 years old, and that's been the driving force behind why they're still relevant and successful in the market. It’s that bend towards technology and making sure that we're adding to the industry as we go forward.

What are you working on now at Harman and what kind of use cases are you solving?

The biggest initiative across the organization right now is our next generation, installed AV system. Very challenging! The ability to combine audio and video and control into one system on consolidated networks and having a similar security platform across all of it. Doing digital audio and digital video is very challenging. What we're about to bring to market over the next 12 months will be impressive; all the feedback has been really great from the customer side – we take it very seriously in terms of getting input and having those checks throughout the process.

That's the biggest thing that we're working on. It's exciting. It's certainly challenging. It's hundreds of engineers at one time globally, across multiple different sites, doing everything from hardware design to software development. What we bring to the market over the next 12 months is going to help the industry take a big step forward.

Do you have any advice for the industry?

I think the biggest thing that we at Harman have, at least over the past few years, learned to focus on is what we're good at. It's too easy to just put your brand on something or go use a development partner regardless of where they are in the world, and not really add any value.

For us at Harman and for those that are the industry darlings that get held up as the ones that continue to add value and innovate – just continue doing it. This industry is really exciting. At the end of the day, it's all about entertainment, helping people feel good and providing an experience. My biggest advice would be to continue to innovate, continue to add value. That's where you'll see the brands that win and lose over the next five to 10 years; it will be the ones that continue to invest and innovate in the industry that win.

Listen to the full interview with Andy Flint on Headliner Radio, here: