Backstory: Encouraging innovation in manufacturing

Tuesday November 15, 2016
Written by Norm Nopper, Lakeport Metalcraft
Nov. 15, 2016 - Across the globe, manufacturers are looking to innovation to provide a key competitive advantage over their rivals, and in many cases, as the answer to their very survival. But innovation is such a broad term that many are struggling to implement the concept, simply because they don’t know where to focus their innovation activities.

Innovation can be applied to your product, manufacturing process, business practices and model, to really anything that can be reconfigured to take your operations to the next level.

The biggest innovation in manufacturing process over the last six decades has been the application of Lean principles, based on the Toyota Production System. The focus on eliminating waste and improving efficiency took Toyota from near bankruptcy in the early 1950s into the Number 1 auto manufacturer today. Many manufacturers are following in Toyota’s footsteps, with varying degrees of success.

Today, we’re hearing more about 3D printing. Presently, we tend to associate 3D printing with plastics and food ingredients, but as we see its development for other materials (e.g., metals) we’ll see the full integration of product design and development, rapid prototyping, and full scale production, allowing the profitable manufacture of batch sizes of one.

This will also impact supply chain management. Image if FedEx or UPS installed 3D printers around the world. You would no longer build and ship a product. Order fulfillment would consist of order intake and printing the product locally. Of course it’s hard to imagine this for complex items, but who knows what the future will bring.

Product and design innovation, along with the attendant skill of commercialization, are essential to maintaining marketable product lines. To stay in business, it’s not enough to be efficient at manufacturing — you have to make what people want.

Today’s business environment is hyper-competitive. You either innovate or die. Innovative activities are not confined to university or corporate laboratories. Management guru Tom Peters once said a great improvement idea is a group of six people deciding to move a file cabinet 12 inches to the left so it no longer interferes with the smooth flow of work. On a factory floor, this may mean moving a machine to allow better forklift access.

So, the place to begin innovating is with your existing employees. Tap into their expertise on ideas to improve the product, design, manufacturing approach, et al.

Norm Nopper is president of Lakeport Metalcraft, a manufacturer of forklift parts. He has been in manufacturing for 28 years, and has implemented many of the innovations he lists, working with companies like Honeywell International and Magna International.

This column was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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