New paths to innovation in manufacturing

Over the past several years we've seen a shift in the innovation efforts of traditional manufacturing companies. While new ideas typically were left to the folks in R&D, that often gave business leaders a bevy of incremental improvements and occasional, often random breakthroughs.

That system is hard to manage, and hard to qualify.

As more organizations begin to operationalize innovation, their breakthroughs are expanding. Goodyear, for example, opened a communication channel to its suppliers to improve the ways in which they work with each other. It wasn't about creating new products, necessarily, but improving on the processes they already had in their supply chain.

Recently, software analyst Derek Singleton explored how crowdsourcing is being applied to mainstream manufacturing. While he identified three major ways in which manufacturers can (and do) bring ideation into their operations, he raises an important point: Why aren't more companies following suit?

To overcome barriers to innovation in manufacturing, he's identified a few strategies to make crowdsourcing more mainstream. We'd like to expand on them:

1. "Start small and work your way up." Marc Halpern, Vice President of Gartner Manufacturing Industry Advisory Service, suggests starting small with innovation around a product that's not core to the business. The opposite is also true. "Instead engage courageous bold leaders to tackle a substantive issue close to the business," says Imaginatik client consultant Bill Truettner. "Be deliberate and focused about selecting the right problem and opportunity. Get the sponsorship you need, then carry it all the way through the process."

There's another force at play here: a success dynamic. The more comfortable employees get with a structured innovation process, the more often they want to engage. If they're innovating around a fringe product not successful to the core business, Truettner says, no one’s going to care. If you want to create a success story that propels your program, select something that’s a strategic, high-impact opportunity.

2. "Protect intellectual property by dividing responsibilities."  Truettner says this can be managed if you choose your audience carefully. Companies may select people bound by the terms of their employment or have a personal reason for keeping their IP protected. In an ideation challenge, he suggests embargoing the information before it is releases to the whole crowd, and having a channel that can decide what information is appropriate to share with everyone.

3. "Make it easier to share design files." The challenge, always, is managing how many files are flying around at any one time. That's why it's crucial to have a mechanism that can identify similar ideas and avoid duplication.

Crowdsourcing in manufacturing is only one small but important step. Once an organization collects ideas you have to vet them, have experts prove them to be viable, then evolve them into projects to be implemented.

"It’s about getting the ideas that get results," Truettner says.

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