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:
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.