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Reclaiming “Innovation” for Small- and Mid-sized Manufacturers

What comes to mind when your hear the word, “innovation?” Quick – grab a pen and paper and jot down the first five things that you think about. Many decades ago, I thought of technology, inventions and the future when someone talked about innovation. The flying cars and robots that you would see on The Jetsons represented innovation to me.

I’ll be candid – innovation is becoming an overused word. Every time I see a commercial, companies are touting how innovative they are. The news media matches the word up with flashy images. Marketers use it nonstop in taglines and campaigns. Who can blame them? Innovation is a great buzzword. It sounds so appealing, modern, exciting and enticing.

As a result of such frequent use of the term, many manufacturers think of innovation as high-tech inventions and modern technological advancements. In order to be innovative, you have to invest significant resources into new technology and endless brainstorming sessions, right? Your CEO has to be the next Steve Jobs. Innovation is expensive, exclusively for large manufacturers or companies in Silicon Valley with disposable money…and it’s too difficult for a small- or mid-sized business… or so we’re led to believe. Look at the five things you wrote down on your paper when you heard, “innovation.” What was your line of thinking?

It’s time for small- and mid-sized manufacturers to reclaim innovation.

As an adult working in the manufacturing industry, my perspective about innovation has matured and evolved. Sure, it would be great to have Rosie (the robot maid from The Jetsons) clean up my house and help me out at work, but that’s no longer what innovation means to me. Let’s get back to basics and actually look at the definition of innovation from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Innovation: in·no·va·tion (noun): 1. a new idea, device, or method. 2. in the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.

Note – there’s nothing in this definition about being expensive or costly. No particular type of size of company owns innovation. So let’s set the record straight: if you’re a small- or mid-sized company, you too can be innovative and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

I’ll share an “urban legend” about manufacturing innovation to convey my point:

A soap manufacturer from China was receiving complaints from consumers who were buying their soapboxes. The consumers were complaining that they were buying boxes and found them to be empty. Management needed to solve the problem. So, the Chinese manufacturer purchased a $10,000 X-ray machine. Three workers would operate the machine, and as all of the soapboxes passed through the assembly line, the workers would look through X-rays on the machine to evaluate every box and make sure that none of them were empty. Problem solved.

A soap manufacturer based in New Jersey was receiving the same complaint – customers were buying soapboxes and were claiming they were empty. Management wanted to solve the problem. One of the assembly workers walked up to management and said, “I heard you got a problem with empty boxes. I got this.” He walked over to the corner and brought back a $50 industrial electric fan. He pointed it at the assembly line, turned on the fan, and it blew away the empty boxes off the line. Problem solved. Now that’s innovation .

In order for U.S. manufacturing to compete in the global market, we need to embrace innovation. Avoiding innovation and maintaining the status quo is like just playing defense in a game. You may not lose, but the best you can do is tie. You can’t win without scoring. Innovation is about playing offense. Sure, we can’t always beat our foreign competitors on price. But we can beat them in quality, creativity and customer service through innovation.

The best part – innovation is easier than you think! By trying new business models or attempting to enhance products and parts, you’re investing in innovation. In fact, the name of our blog incorporates innovation…it’s the Manufacturing Innovation Blog! Yet, our entries aren’t about expensive high-tech equipment. Our blog is about practical tips and updates on topics such as workforce development, sustainability and growth.

The next time you think, “innovation is too hard,” consider the following areas in which you can become more innovative:

  • Lean: by adopting Lean manufacturing principles, you’re discovering new efficiencies and promoting a culture of teamwork
  • Exporting: 95% of the world’s customers live outside the U.S. – exporting can help you tap into new markets
  • Green: green manufacturing can help you combat rising energy costs and become more efficient
  • Marketing: improving your website or trying social networking can connect you with new consumers
  • Quality Management Systems: by becoming certified and adhering to international standards, you can become more marketable

If you’re a small- or mid-sized manufacturer, reclaim innovation for your own company and become more competitive. Contact a local MEP center for information or assistance.

About the author

Mike Simpson

Mike Simpson is part of NIST MEP’s Network Learning and Strategic Competition Division, in which he manages a number of MEP’s Competitive Award Projects.

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Great article Mike. When you say "companies are touting how innovative they are" it is like companies touting (proclaiming) "We are the number 1 ..." or "We are the leader ...". If they have to tell you, then they must not be. Because if they truly are innovative, their actions should be making us say that about them, not them having to tell us. :) Same with being the leader in their industry, if they were, we would already know that and not need to be told by them. Those are comments best made by others, not companies saying about themselves.
Mike, you are right on. Innovation is essential to surviving - let alone thriving - in 21st century manufacturing. The key is to look at your business in a "zoomed out" way. Opportunities for innovation are everywhere: in your supply chain, in your value proposition, in relationships building, in product design... the list goes on and on. Your business may be small, but the scope of your thinking about innovation needs to be really broad.
Excellent well deserved!!! I’m learning so much from your wonderful site here! . It’s thanks to you and all the great posts on Beyond Your Blog that encouraged and enabled me to do it. I greatly appreciate your informative posts! Thank you!
Hi Mike, Great article with a fantastic innovation article. I;ve just some across the blog for the first time and totally agree. Innovation can come in a variety of sources, especially for SMEs where low cost, quick options can deliver great benefits. Try spending time with your production guys, inspection, quality, maintenance and service teams and you will get a whole host of great ideas that improve the product function & assembly and cut the cost of ownership. Ideally you'll have internal comms channels/processes to routinely feed these ideas back. It goes without saying you should be giving customers and users throughout the product life-cycle, the opportunity to feed innovative ideas back via multiple external communication channels. This also gives you scope for innovation. Social media is a great way of facilitating this (as well as building customer rapport and loyalty) Your R&D design engineers are in the best position to rank, filter, then realise these innovative ideas. This sits alongside the team's more traditional role of working with Marketing to respond and develop products according to customer demand. Note: All of the above feed into incremental innovation. For step-change, more radical innovation you need to be plugged into effective horizon scanning with an eye on transformative technologies, materials, manufacturing processes and drivers in other industry sectors. Every firm can improve it's R&D function and get tangible innovation improvements, perhaps with the biggest opportunity being for SMEs.…

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