In Focus: Manufacturing and Innovation
Innovation gets a great deal of mindshare—online, in print, and in the labs and on the production floors of manufacturers large and small—and for good reason. The manufacturing sector has weathered a difficult few years, and in order to meet the needs of a changing customer base and claim work coming back from overseas, smart SMEs are turning to innovation as a means of differentiating their products in the marketplace.
We spoke to Research Triangle Institute (RTI) Senior Innovation Advisor Tom Culver for a discussion on the role that innovation plays today for SMEs, as well as the outlook for groundbreaking innovation in the near future.
Culver has worked with RTI for more than 13 years, advising on innovation and technology commercialization. He has developed, organized, and taught nationwide workshops on technology scouting and market intelligence processes, and he routinely provides technology scouting, licensing, technical and market opportunity assessments, and strategic advising services across many technology and consumer sectors. He has helped clients successfully license technologies, develop multi-million dollar investment partnerships, and find enabling technologies for globally launched commercial products.
MRC: Can you describe your role within the RTI?
Culver: We are an innovation-advising group; we work with large corporations, universities, large government agencies, and small businesses to improve innovative practices within organizations and provide innovation support services.
My role is that of a senior innovative advisor. I’m focused on open innovation strategies that help clients connect to external technology and business opportunities. In that capacity, I spend a lot of time thinking about innovation strategies, frameworks, and how companies can improve their innovation capabilities and capacity.
MRC: What are some of the innovation challenges that exist within manufacturing?
There’s an awareness of the technological innovation that’s occurring. Small manufacturers in particular are aware that to stay competitive, they have to get out and access that technology.
The challenge that remains for small companies with limited resources—both human and financial—is to find, acquire, adopt, and execute on those technologies. It’s not easy to understand what those technologies offer and figure out where to find them. Small companies are so busy trying to build business, or just maintain the status quo, to really think about new types of innovation and technology.
There are other challenges, too—keeping up with the pace of technical change, and becoming more skillful at having an innovation management strategy among them. In other words, they need to think about innovation in a structured way just like they’ve learned to do with quality or product management; they need an innovation discipline just as they do with other functions of business management.
MRC: Looking at innovation today, can you comment on the importance of “Speed to Market” and external “Market Intelligence” within manufacturing?
That challenge creates a constant tension for companies dealing with innovation and adapting to market; they need to be flexible and focused at the same time. They have to be flexible enough to pivot and go after opportunities, yet focused enough to go after the right opportunities.
Opportunity selection is being able to focus on the right ones, opportunity identification is knowing where to find them, and opportunity execution is actually executing on the solution. Together they make up the Innovation Cycle.
If you have a good innovation system, you can start building the ability to identify, choose, and then execute into your processes. This gives you the potential to get to market quickly. But there’s a caveat; you still need intelligence about what’s going on.
Technology intelligence, which tells you what technology and market opportunities are out there—that lets you make good opportunity selections. If you understand what technology is available to execute a given opportunity, then you have a higher chance of success.
MRC: With limited resources, how can small-to-medium sized manufacturers innovate and bring new products to market today?
With a structured process, you’ll be effective at the process of innovating. But you need good connections to the external world to find technology and worthwhile opportunities, and then you must be flexible and focused to bring them to market.
MRC: What are some tools or methods that a small manufacturer can utilize to stay informed about potential new processes or markets right now?
We talked about a strategic framework that identifies, selects, and executes on opportunities. There are tactical approaches within in each of those, including Technology Scouting and Technology-Driven Market Intelligence (TDMI). Tech Scouting lets companies identify, understand, and select the best external technology to improve processes or develop new products; TDMI enables them to find new market opportunities, characterize them, and select those with the most promise.
A combination of good technology and market intelligence gives companies insight to know what they don’t know, make sound decisions about the opportunities to pursue, and a roadmap on how best to execute on them.
MRC: What are your thoughts regarding innovation over the next few years for manufacturers?
At a technology level, there will be big shifts in the availability of technology to transform manufacturing: the internet of things (sensor-enabled networks that can improve facility operations, reporting, etc.), Additive Manufacturing, and social media will each play an important role in these shifts.
Another changing layer is the change in the federal government’s focus on supporting U.S. manufacturing. This is happening through workforce development, regional clusters (technology- and market-based), investment in new manufacturing centers…it’s all aimed at improving U.S manufacturing with a strong focus on SMEs.
There is also an innovation manufacturing layer—SMEs must improve their level of sophistication regarding the ways they manage and structure innovation as opposed to an ad hoc approach.
The Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), the system that MRC is part of, is central to a lot of these efforts. MEPs are a great connection for SMEs to the government layer; they’re a great connection to services like Tech Scouting and TDMI to position companies in order to leverage innovation strategies and practices for more growth.
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If you would like to learn more about the ways MRC and RTI can help you differentiate your business through innovation, contacting MRC is an excellent first step. With our in-house expertise and access to world-class resources like RTI, we will help you get started on the road to innovation excellence.
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