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How to Encourage and Nurture Innovation in Manufacturing

Posted by Ho Nguyen

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Innovation is critical to the manufacturing industry. But how does an idea evolve from inspiration to execution? Sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes pure luck—and sometimes an idea comes to fruition via a carefully orchestrated process with many individuals participating, each person playing a vital role. What can you do to create an environment that’s conducive to creative thinking and encourages your people to act on those ideas?

How to Encourage and Nurture Innovation in Manufacturing

How to encourage and nurture innovation

Here are seven guidelines to help kick off a strategic approach that considers the entire process—from inception to execution:

1. The creative spark

New ideas can come from anywhere and can originate in the most unlikely places. While a manufacturing company often has an engineering team, product development department, or R&D division, individuals on these teams aren’t the only ones who engage in problem-solving. An old proverb states, “necessity is the mother of invention.”

The people who have the greatest, hands-on familiarity with the products—the people who use the products, and the people who are on the assembly line who manufacture the products—may come up with the most practical ideas. Manufacturers need tools for capturing and harnessing these kernels of innovation. Online portals, collaboration tools, and message boards replace the traditional suggestion box, making it easy for individuals to submit ideas.

2. A company culture that accepts risk

An innovative company is usually one that’s willing to take chances, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. For a truly innovative environment, risk tolerance is a necessity and must be reinforced in the company culture. This mindset starts at the top with C-level officers encouraging experimentation, rewarding effort, and acknowledging that not every new idea will succeed. This eliminates barriers of fear, which can stifle creativity.

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3. Engage with customers

Today’s customers expect highly personalised products. Online tools allow consumers to select features, choose accessories, pick colours and finishes, and add embellishments for many products—from shoes to cars. This carries over to the industrial commercial industries as well.

Buyers of machinery, equipment, and high-tech components expect the same kind of ability to interact with the design engineers, providing input on specific features. This level of engagement often produces innovative concepts—ideas that combine practical functionality with non-essentials, like convenience, comfort, pride, and image. Branding goods with sports teams’ emblems has been successful in the fashion industry for decades. These types of personalisation, endorsements, and co-branding efforts are now seeping into the industrial space as well.

How to Encourage and Nurture Innovation in Manufacturing

4. Adjacent innovation and unlikely bedfellows

Adjacent innovation means building upon and borrowing concepts from enterprises outside of your industry. For example, hospitals may look to the hospitality sector for ways to make patients feel more at home and comfortable. The equipment industry can learn from the fashion industry how to let customers accessorize the equipment cabs and choose from mix-and-match features. Thanks to easy online searches, whole new worlds of inspiration are open to creative thinkers. Ideas can even come from the natural world via plants, animals, and insects—a drone that uses an insect-like wing structure for self-healing is just one example.

5. Hire visionaries and creators

As the skills gap issue continues to plague manufacturing, some manufacturers have expanded their hiring parameters to go beyond traditional engineering and mechanical skills. Individuals with liberal arts backgrounds are increasingly being put to work as visionaries, story tellers, and creative problem-solvers in manufacturing plants. Since creativity is so critical to the innovation process, manufactures should build their product development teams with a mix of skills—including individuals with imaginative, creative abilities, who can ask, “what if …”

6. Team buy-in

Innovation, departures from the traditional, and wholesale change can be uncomfortable for the workforce—especially if it is perceived that the change may be a threat to job security. Most humans are creatures of habit, finding comfort in the familiar, safe, and predictable. Disrupting routine—without sharing the reason or the benefit—can cause stress in the organization. Involving personnel in the process, though, can eliminate distrust and foster a sense of ownership of a new concept—whether it’s a new workflow, new piece of equipment, or new policy about processing customer orders. Communication is a vital part of innovation—at every level.

7. Incremental changes can be easily digested

When planning to roll out an innovative new concept, it may be beneficial to plan a phased approach—gradually building on early successes and moving toward the final project scope. Manufacturing plants have long endorsed the continuous-improvement school-of-thought, which emphasizes ongoing tracking, monitoring, improving, and evaluating results in an endless loop. While these changes tend to be incremental, they still involve a steady ebb and flow of process change. This forces personnel to cope with updates to procedures and changes to systems in a steady, predictable flow, while allowing time to digest the change. With this method, changes tend to be nonthreatening and absorbed by the workforce with minimal disruption.

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 Rick Yvanovich
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