Looking for the source of innovation in manufacturing technology. Not only am I planning for direction in 2018, I’m in conversations about where lies the excitement.

OK, so it’s been two months I’ve been digesting some thoughts. In my meager defense, November and December were very busy and hectic months for me. Still lots going on in January as I gear up for the year.

Last November, I quoted Seth Godin:

Like Mary Shelley

When she wrote Frankenstein, it changed everything. A different style of writing. A different kind of writer. And the use of technology in ways that no one expected and that left a mark.

Henry Ford did that. One car and one process after another, for decades. Companies wanted to be the Ford of _____. Progress makes more progress easier. Momentum builds. But Ford couldn’t make the streak last. The momentum gets easier, but the risks feel bigger too.

Google was like that. Changing the way we used mail and documents and the internet itself. Companies wanted to be the Google of _____. And Apple was like that, twice with personal computers, then with the phone. And, as often happens with public companies, they both got greedy.

Tesla is still like that. They’re the new Ford. Using technology in a conceptual, relentless, and profound fashion to remake industries and expectations, again and again. Take a breakthrough, add a posture, apply it again and again. PS Audio is like that in stereos, and perhaps you could be like that… The Mary Shelley of ____.

So I asked on Twitter “Who will be the Mary Shelley of automation?

I’m sitting in a soccer referee certification clinic when I glance at the phone. Twitter notifications are piling up.

Andy Robinson (@Archestranaut) got fired up and started this tweet storm:

Gary… why do you have to get me fired up on a chilly November morning! I’m not sure we have any.. at least at any scale. And the more I’ve pondered this more the more I consider the role or culpability of the customer. Buyers of automation at any scale tend to be 1/

incredibly conservative. If they are ok with technology that isn’t much more than a minor evolution of the existing then we aren’t going to get anywhere. Recently I devoured Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. I keep trying to figure out how a small player 2/

with disruptive tech can move our industry. There are pockets and potential but ultimately if there isn’t enough uptake by customers willing to take a risk then we don’t move forward. Considering all this I “think” I have figured out one potential causal factor. 3/

If you look at where the fastest innovation is happening it’s in software. Is the majority of the innovation coming from vendors or asset owners. it’s asset owners. Amazon, Netflix, AirBnB, etc. are all doing amazing things and taking risks writing new code for their systems4/

Having been an asset owner and vendor I can tell you for a fact I was way more willing to take risks when I was the owner. As a vendor I want to deliver a solution to spec with minimal risk. Fundamentally product companies are doing the same thing. Just good enough with 5/

minimum risk to supply chain, warranty repairs, reliable field operations etc. Even platforms like Kubernetes that appear unaffiliated were developed by asset owners like Google, taking risks and pushing the boundaries. The Exxon work with open automation “has” this 6/

potential but I don’t know if the willpower up and down the chain and left and right with partners is going to be there. It takes incredible willpower to take risks and accept that there will be blow back and consequences in the form of loss of political capital and failure. 7/

So maybe it all boils down to the fact that until we as an industry find a place where failure is acceptable and even celebrated on a small scale we will continue to innovate at a speed somewhere between typewriters and vacuum cleaners. 8/

is it any wonder we have such a hard time attracting young talent? Pay is good and challenges to solve real problems are there. But looking 20 years out we are still doing same things, just a new operating system, faster Ethernet, and new style of button bar on the HMI /endrant

He asks some good questions and provides some interesting insights.

I’ve had positions with companies at different points of the supply chain. He makes sense with the observation that the asset owners may be the most innovative. My time in product development with consumer goods manufacturers taught me such lessons as:

  • Fear of keeping ahead of the competition
  • Relentless concentration on the customer
  • Not just cost, but best value of components going into the product
  • Explaining what we were doing in simple, yet provocative terms

Today? I’m seeing some product companies acquiring talent with new ideas. Some are bringing innovative outlooks to companies who find it very hard to take a risk for all the reasons Andy brings up. The gamble is whether the big company can actually bring out the product—and then integrate it with existing products to bring something really innovative to market. They of course have the funds to market the ideas from the small groups.

Next step, do the innovative people from the small company just get integrated into the bureaucracy? Often there is the one great idea. It gets integrated and then that’s the end. The innovators wait out their contract and then go out and innovate again. I’ve seen it play out many times in my career as observer.

Often the other source of big company innovation bubbles up from customers. An engineer is trying to solve a problem. Needs something new from a supplier. Goes to the supplier and asks for an innovation.

I’d look for innovation from asset owners, universities, small groups of innovative engineers and business thinkers. They live in the world of innovating to stay ahead of the competition or just the world of ideas.

I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s biography “Leonardo” right after his one on Einstein. He offers insights on what to personality to look for if you want to develop an innovative culture in your workforce. Wrote about that recently here.

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