Going out and seeing what your customers are up against on a daily basis is essential to solving their unmet needs, a pre-requisite for innovation. But manufacturers can also plant the seeds of innovation by establishing a culture that encourages collaboration, play, and experimentation.
A new digital age is dawning in manufacturing, steadily making its mark from product design to factory floor operations, and even to finished products that convey data back to the manufacturer. Fueling this transformation are a host of powerful tools—data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and dynamic software algorithms—that quicken product development cycles and expand the functionality of products in areas like new materials, 3D printing, electronics manufacturing, automobile manufacturing, and mobile autonomous robots.
Using an approach called generative design, engineers today can solve part design problems with the aid of algorithms that enable them to explore a greater range of solutions, including some that are counter-intuitive to traditional thinking. Algorithms are also employed to make mobile, autonomous robots smarter and more adaptive to changing environments in a manufacturing facility (see “Mobile Autonomous Robots Are Built for the Long Haul”). And digital manufacturing apps are now available for shop floor personnel.
“We have a set of digital technologies that are exponentially advancing in terms of price / performance, and that is creating increasing opportunity for manufacturing firms to harness some of that capability and potential to deliver more value to the marketplace,” said John Hagel, co-chairman, Deloitte Center for the Edge, in an interview at the Exponential Manufacturing Summit in Boston in May. “At one level, the potential is exponentially increasing. So far, the actual capability is, at best, linearly increasing. So there’s a widening opportunity gap there.”
Generative Design Gives Engineers More Solutions to Explore
For the last three years, Autodesk, Inc. has been incubating a technology that takes a different approach to computer-aided design (CAD). Instead of specifying points and lines in a CAD tool, engineers who are using Autodesk’s generative design tool can rely on artificial intelligence to solve for them.
“Traditionally, a designer or an engineer needs to conceive of the design, and really, all the CAD tool is doing is transcribing it into a digital format for them,” said Erin Bradner, senior research scientist at Autodesk, in an interview at the Exponential Manufacturing Summit. “You’ve thought through all of your tradeoffs and explored the solution space on your own, and then you’re generating the design by hand. With generative design, you specify the goals—the high-level goals—and then the algorithm will solve against that.”
Generative design allows users to look at a large solution set and think about their problem in ways that hadn’t occurred to them before. One user told Bradner that he can “look around at sort of this 30,000-foot level, and see where solutions are clustering” and then “land in his seat” by choosing the solution that has the physical properties and performance characteristics that he wants. The design tool uses artificial intelligence with high performance computing to radically compress the amount of time required to explore a range of solutions to a design problem.
“Ideally, we have infinite time and infinite mental capacity to explore a range of solutions, but, in practice, we don’t,” said Bradner. “There’s budget, there’s schedule, there’s other demands. With a generative design approach, because I have specified the goals, and not specified a single solution, I get to diverge and I get to explore more solutions. That’s where a lot of the power comes from. Instead of thinking about it as, ‘Okay, I have hundreds of solutions now that I need to sift through, we think about it as having access to a pool of cross-functional teams that you can send off in different directions to solve against the same problem in different ways. And then you are the ultimate arbiter of which solutions are the most suitable, given the tradeoffs you’re willing to make.”
Engineers and designers are sometimes told that they “play too much,” Bradner said. “Engineers are driven by this opportunity to ‘play’ mentally, given constraints in the context of the design. This algorithm gives them a chance to play and experiment in a way that they haven’t been able to do in the past, simply because they’ve had to do all the design and analysis themselves.”
Airbus used a generative design approach to create a new lightweight partition, a structural member of an aircraft cabin where the flight crew sits on takeoff and landing. Bradner said their engineers were aiming for a 30 percent weight reduction, but were able to achieve a reduction of 40 percent instead.
“They did a multi-scale optimization, meaning they solved for the global shape,” she recalled. “Airbus, in partnership with a consulting team that we have at Autodesk, created these algorithms bespoke. They solved for the shape, the overall structural form of the partition, and then they optimized each beam separately. If they had a design team with conventional tools, they may have been able to remove weight from that partition. But one of the things they couldn’t have done is 3D print the solution with this new proprietary powder that Airbus has, called Scalmalloy®. So the combination of using the materials, setting incredibly ambitious goals to remove 30 percent of weight from the structural member, and co-optimizing the structure for stiffness and weight reduction, is a pretty impressive feat that algorithms, paired with engineers, were able to accomplish. I can’t imagine another approach to that that would have achieved what it did.”
Bradner said that the idea for Autodesk’s generative design tool was conceived about four years ago, when Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski proposed a provocative question to the company’s computation group.
“He said, ‘Okay, what does design and engineering look like when every engineer has a supercomputer at his or her disposal? How does that change the art and practice of design?’
“And my colleague, who is a supercomputing expert, happened to take our CTO up on that challenge and proposed this idea of a generative, algorithmic approach to design, where you’re setting these processors off on the task of solving against your design problems. So that’s the origin of it from a practical organizational standpoint—it came from a challenge internally. The technological underpinnings are artificial intelligence and high-performance computing.”
When looking into a process that they could potentially use, engineers are used to asking about the limits of a process and its range of application. But generative design prompts a different question: What types of possibilities does it open up?
“You now have a collaborator in the form of an AI (artificial intelligence),” Bradner said. This is early days, but right now, this generative design tool is exploring different materials for you. You give it the material definition; you can find the definition of materials online anywhere. It takes the Young’s Modulus and the Poisson Ratio for materials, brings that in and understands how those materials behave, and then it synthesizes form that satisfies your goals and constraints. So it opens up quite a bit of possibility.
“We know that design is about exploring, or divergent thinking, and then refining a solution, or convergent thinking. And for this tool to be successful, we need to be able to support divergent thinking and convergent thinking. People who’ve sat in front of this tool have said, ‘Look, I’m using both sides of my brain now.”
Harnessing Technology to Create Value for Customers
Manufacturing companies today are becoming increasingly aware of not only the pace of change, but the breadth of change in many different categories of technology. “It’s not just computers anymore; it’s a whole range of nascent technologies that are getting driven by digital,” Deloitte’s John Hagel told D2P. “And that creates both an opportunity and a challenge. At one level, it’s up to us to harness that capability, but if we don’t, somebody else will, and our positions may be at risk.”
Hagel believes that companies today, including manufacturers, are really only capturing a small portion of the potential performance improvement that’s now available from technology.
“Broadly, I would say that the core challenge that I see is that our institutions—and I include manufacturing companies in this, but it’s not just limited to manufacturing—are driven by what we call scalable efficiency. It’s a focus on ‘how do you reduce cost throughout the enterprise?’ And the way we’ve pursued scalable efficiency has actually limited the potential for innovation, partly because efficiency, the way we define it, requires predictability and reliability, so failure is not an option. Guess what? Innovation is not always going to succeed. There is going to be a high failure rate. If it’s not an option, we can’t innovate, so forget about it.
“Alternatively, too, the way we pursue scalable efficiency is by tightly specifying all the activities that need to be performed, highly standardizing all the activities, and tightly integrating all the activities. So we’ve created environments where innovation just is not allowed; it’s not feasible. Everything’s tightly specified; we do things as assigned, and so I think it creates a significant gap between what innovation requires and what our institutions are demanding from all the employees within the institution.”
What about companies whose cultures have allowed them to innovate consistently over the years? What are some of their key characteristics?
“We’ve spent a lot of time with some of the more digital technology companies, and one of the things they do is they pursue an approach to strategy that we call ‘Zoom Out, Zoom In,’ Hagel replied. “Their leadership team has alignment around a 10-to-20-year view of what the market’s going to look like, and what our company needs to look like. And that’s the Zoom Out.
“The ‘Zoom In’ is, they align around, in the next 6-to-12 months, the two or three initiatives that would have the greatest impact in moving them to that destination. So it’s a very powerful device to focus leadership and the organization on the highest impact initiatives that could really advance and evolve the company towards this new business opportunity, or new business that they need to be. And that’s a very powerful engine.”
The Right Mindset
A number of emerging technologies are poised to have a powerful impact on the way that manufacturers build products. Advanced robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning all hold promise as tools for achieving higher quality, efficiency, and productivity. But unless manufacturers apply them with the right mindset, they may be missing out on their greatest opportunities, Hagel said.
“Certainly, there is a lot of opportunity with many of these technologies. There are exceptions to all of this, but, in general, I would say that for most companies that are pursuing these technologies today, it’s around internal cost reduction—doing what they’ve always done, faster and cheaper. So, robotics: ‘We’ll put a robot in. If we can replace a more expensive human being and make fewer errors and do it at lower cost, great—robot! Artificial intelligence: If we can optimize our operations around artificial intelligence, great, let’s do that.’
“But the whole notion of ‘How do you harness these technologies to create more value for the customer and for the marketplace?’ seems to be largely off the radar screen. It ties back to this scalable efficiency kind of mindset, which is, ‘I just want to do what I’ve always done, faster and cheaper.’”
Hagel said that in the same way that crowdsourcing and open innovation have been shown to benefit product development, the democratization of data—not just among a company’s internal staff, but throughout the supply chain and beyond—could potentially give a similar boost to the company’s ability to innovate.
“One of my key messages to senior executives is, if you want to know where the money is, follow the data. The data will tell you where the money’s going to be. It may not be there this minute, but the key questions are ‘who owns the data?’ and ‘who has access to the data?’ Because ultimately, that’s going to determine who captures the value that’s available from the data.
“A related point is that we have a lot of fascination with artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. But if those technologies don’t have data, it doesn’t matter. The data is what’s going to make them smart and what’s going to enable them to deliver value to the marketplace. And it’s increasingly not just about the data that we have within our enterprise about our own operations—it’s data about the broader environment that we’re operating in, both the customer environment and the supply chain environment, and our broader ecosystem of partners that we collaborate with to deliver value to the marketplace. And that’s a big untapped opportunity.”
Strategies at the intersection of data and artificial intelligence are opening up opportunities for not just software engineers, but data scientists. And although a fair amount of research has pointed to a shortage of these skill sets in many companies, Hagel said, the biggest opportunities demand a somewhat higher set of skills.
“I would say—and I tend to be a bit of a contrarian—that while those skillsets are critical, the skillsets that are most important are those that can figure out how to take all this data analytics and deliver real value to the customer and to the marketplace. Again, I think we have a shortage of people who are really focused on that and who have the expertise and capability to creatively figure out ‘What are the unmet needs of our customers and our marketplace?’ and ‘Where and how can we mobilize data to provide additional data to address those unmet needs?’”
The ability to identify and address those unmet needs requires not only a deep understanding of customers and the market, but a commitment to create and deliver more value instead of just focusing on operational efficiency and cost reduction, said Hagel. “The big missed opportunity is how to deliver more value to the marketplace,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to minimize efforts to improve efficiency and lower costs. “Clearly, that’s important, too, but the white space—the big missed opportunity—is how to deliver more value to the marketplace.”
It’s one thing for a company to know it’s important to identify unmet needs; it’s another to be able to successfully do it. So how might one go about identifying a customer’s unmet needs?
“Part of it, at one level, is asking the customers,” said Hagel. “But I think it was Steve Jobs who once said ‘Don’t ask customers about their needs because you’ll get only very narrowly defined answers.’ Really, it’s having the skillset and expertise to actually go out and live with the customer and really see what they’re trying to do on a daily basis, and where and how you could provide additional insight or capability through some of these new technologies.”
Going Beyond the Core to Find an Edge
Manufacturers have long operated in an environment that requires them to balance trade-offs, whether it’s revenue enhancement and cost containment; customization and standardization; or competition and collaboration. But today, business pressures are converging to create a deeper complexity around the decisions they’re making, Hagel said.
“If you think about the impact of digital technology on the broader business environment and global economy, at one level, it is intensifying competitive pressure in the sense of putting more and more pressure on our cost base, our asset base,” he explained. “So this whole focus on efficiency becomes even more important: We need to find ways to cut costs, to get rid of assets where they’re not necessary.
“But on the other side, as the pace of change increases, customer needs are evolving at a much more rapid rate, and the ability to respond to those needs, through innovation and through more creative product design and ways of serving those customers, becomes central. So you’ve got this complexity of, on the one hand, cut costs, and on the other hand, become more innovative and creative in how you respond to a much more rapidly changing market.
“And if it were a rapidly changing market that was completely predictable, that would be easier to deal with. But you have also the increasing uncertainty—unpredictable things that come in out of nowhere—that create the challenge of, ‘Okay, now what do we do?’ So it’s also the agility of how you respond quickly to things you never even expected, or certainly didn’t have in your forecast.”
Much of what Hagel discussed in the interview implies a fundamental transformation of the way most traditional companies operate today. But he said that, from his experience, “transformation” is a buzzword that everybody uses, yet there are precious few examples of companies that have really transformed their business. His recommendation for transforming a business runs counter-intuitive to traditional strategies.
“Our belief is that the most effective way to drive transformation is, rather than trying to transform the core of the business, find an edge today that’s relatively modest,” he said. “If you understand the forces at work—the exponential forces at work—you could scale it to the point where it actually becomes the new core of your company, of your business, and focus your transformation on that edge, as it scales. And, over time, pull more and more of the people and resources from the core, out to the edge. And that, we believe, is ultimately the most promising way to get transformation of large, traditional companies.”
The Emergence of Innovation Ecosystems
Innovation in American manufacturing today is a team effort supported by the efforts of 14 Manufacturing USA Innovation Institutes, a network of participants from industry, government, and academia who co-invest in the development of leading-edge manufacturing technologies. These public-private partnerships focus on technologies that are critical to the future competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing, such as 3D printing, advanced robotics, and smart sensors, as well as technologies for manufacturing advanced lightweight materials, flexible hybrid electronics, and advanced polymer composites.
Through their collaborative efforts, the Manufacturing USA Institutes are helping to spur the growth of innovation hubs, or ecosystems, in their regions of activity. These regions include Youngstown, Ohio, the headquarters of America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute; Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation; and Los Angeles, where the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute is based.
“When you think about the ecosystems, the Institutes have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars to their regions,” said Megan Brewster, former fellow and senior policy advisor for advanced manufacturing at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a phone interview. “In the case of America Makes, the oldest institute with the most time on the ground, they helped attract $32 million from GE to their neighborhood, and $60 million from Alcoa.”
The Manufacturing USA Institutes also play an important role in creating and sustaining manufacturing jobs. Power America, a Manufacturing USA Institute based in Raleigh, North Carolina, is working to make wide bandgap semiconductor devices cost-competitive with silicon-based power electronics. Last year, Power America partnered with the Texas foundry, X-FAB, to help upgrade the company’s facilities to a silicon carbide manufacturing process. The partnership has enabled new business opportunities for X-FAB and sustained hundreds of jobs, Brewster said.
Despite the current growth of innovation hubs in the United States, innovation in manufacturing is not something that has always been fully recognized and appreciated.
“There is innovation in manufacturing, but that’s not something that we, as a country, really realized until about the last 10 or 15 years,” Brewster said, pointing to numerous examples of technologies that were invented in the United States and manufactured elsewhere. She cited lithium ion batteries as an example.
“The first location for manufacturing overseas is one thing,” Brewster said. “But then, as the market evolves and the next generation of that technology is developed, there’s more innovation that goes into the next wave of technology as we move from lithium ion batteries for consumer electronics, to lithium ion batteries for laptops, and then for electric vehicles. And the United States misses out on that innovation because that innovation is occurring where the manufacturing facilities are. We didn’t really understand that as a country until recently.”
Today, there are a number of pockets of excellence throughout the country, in a variety of industries, she said. “These communities are beginning to be recognized on a national scale. They’re being networked with other like-minded ecosystems, and they’re working to build a more resilient network across the entire country.”
Brewster sees a number of megatrends that are driving innovation in manufacturing today. The first is new business models for manufacturing.
“One of the trends that I think is very interesting is ‘makers to manufacturers,’ the democratization of manufacturing,” she said. “How do we go from a single individual tinkering in their garage, or a small team of individuals, to actually being able to produce a small lot of high quality products? How do we support those individuals? And so there are a variety of new business models that are opening up to enable small batch production or mass customization. This goes hand in hand with the idea of, if you have a 3D printer that you use 9 to 5, can other people utilize that printer during the off hours? Can they send their files to have their parts printed? That’s increased uptime for your business.”
Another category of trends is new technologies, generally. “The one that I’m particularly excited about is this seamless incorporation of high performance computing into the production paradigm to realize the Industrial Internet,” she said. “Think about the addition of artificial intelligence: Generative design allows you to design for advanced materials, which is really exciting. And then there’s always the very important challenge of cybersecurity that goes along with that.”
A third big category is the emergence of the innovation ecosystem, which Manufacturing USA is helping to build. Becoming more and more common within these ecosystems is the standup of facilities that Brewster called “a hybrid blend of incubator, makerspace, and prototyping facility—kind of an all in one. Those are really interesting as well,” she said. “Just a couple of weeks ago, I was visiting the Engine at MIT, a really interesting and exciting model where they’re supporting the scale-up of hardware companies. It’s incredibly important to our country. So I’m really excited about MIT’s leadership in that space.”
The development of innovation ecosystems is giving OEMs some important questions to consider, Brewster said. “If I’m a manufacturer, an OEM, how do I support innovation within my supply chain? How do I partner with my suppliers to maintain that leading edge?”
Another really interesting example, Brewster said, is what Local Motors is doing in harnessing the crowd. “They have this really amazing platform that they use where individuals from anywhere in the world can participate in the innovation of different products. Local Motors has put out a number of challenges to their community, which is a worldwide community of diverse solvers. You know, ‘every solver we can get to play the game is another shot on goal, and we need as many shots on goal as possible.’
“Local Motors is just really opening the floodgates here, getting literally anyone who wants to play, onto the field. And they have had individuals that have designed the 3D printed car, the autonomous bus, and the air cargo drone. They have some of the most interesting challenges, and a very interesting way of bringing people together around those challenges.”
Open innovation, or harnessing the power of the crowd, is a megatrend, Brewster noted, that raises more interesting questions for manufacturers. “This is what’s coming,” she said. “And so how are you going to deal with it? Are you going to have some sort of open platform? Are you going to try to compete against that within more traditional paradigms? But it’s not just that it’s coming; it’s already here. Companies are already doing it.”
Brewster was asked how she sees the manufacturing industry taking shape in the future.
“I don’t think that we can even imagine what it’s going to look like, certainly, in 20 years, probably in 10 years, and, I would hazard to say, even in five years,” she replied. “I think that we just don’t even know what it’s going to look like. I will say that a huge part of American manufacturing is the small and medium sized manufacturers; they make up the vast, vast majority of manufacturing enterprises in this country. And we have to think of a way to [support their] chance of success in the same paradigm, as well. How can we support these small and medium sized manufacturers that want to upgrade their technology to the latest and greatest and want to define the workforce of the future? How can we ensure a level playing field for them as well? And I think that this is a whole other conversation.
“But one of the federal programs that is incredibly integral to this is the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program. There’s an MEP Center in every state. They’re funded out of NIST, out of the Department of Commerce. This is an incredibly, incredibly important program to small and medium sized manufacturers across the country. I get so excited talking about the next generation of technology and these mega trends in manufacturing, but we can never forget that there’s a vast, vast number of small manufacturers that are just a really important part of our American manufacturing ecosystem. They are integral, and we have to keep them in mind as well.”
Crowdsourced Design and Localized Manufacturing
Local Motors, a low-volume manufacturer of motor vehicles that include the Rally Fighter, the Strati, and the Olli, is a pioneer in the use of open source innovation. Through its co-creation process, the company solicits the design input of a diverse community of solvers, designers, and engineers all over the world before building the vehicles in a micro factory that employs agile, lean manufacturing principles. Phil Rayer, Local Motors’ manufacturing lead at the company’s 40-person micro factory in Phoenix, said that the company’s name refers to “localized manufacturing on a micro level.’
“Products are built for the customer, with the customer in mind,” Rayer told D2P in a phone interview. “Our core expertise is that we can move fast and well with 3D printing. We’re focused on quick product lifecycles with flexible cell manufacturing, and we have the ability to change over quickly on our product lines, which can adapt for new products and local changes in the markets. Micro manufacturing allows for quick adaptation, so if the demand in the market changes, we’re able to flex with that much more quickly.”
Unlike OEMs, which build lines for a standardized product, Local Motors builds flexible lines for multiple products. That enables the company to flex all of its product lines. Part reduction is a huge key in how Local Motors views design, and when building a vehicle, such as the Strati, the entire Body in White is 3D printed.
“In traditional manufacturing, you’re looking at about 4,000 parts to 15,000,” said Rayer. “There’s a huge amount of parts just in the Body in White. So we’re really trying to take a product, make it modular, and then drop out parts through 3D printing, through digital manufacturing. And that’s one of our biggest keys. Most of our facilities are designed and laid out with that in mind.
“The amazing part is we are a just-in-time facility, so when you’re building a Body in White, you have the ability to go from a 3D printer to a mill, directly to the line,” Rayer continued. “That is a very amazing thing because, typically, most vehicles will be stamped in one facility, fabricated in another, and then you go through the e-coat, and then it goes through the production line. But your production lines are, typically, in a major manufacturer, 100-plus cells. We’re at seven cells to build a full vehicle. We build based on structure, so we’re not building based on a step or a function. We’re building based on structure that gives us the ability to bring parts in, just in time, when they’re needed for that vehicle.”
“We work a lot with local suppliers to meet that demand quickly. And that helps us to keep our just in time philosophy and minimize the actual time of parts being on the shelf and, basically, causing that overhead in that capital layout.”
Local Motors uses its community of open source solvers to improve in a number of ways, Rayer said.
“Our community has input into the product, into the design, and also into improving the actual processes. And we also include our community in our teams as well. So that gives you some really good flexibility from the standpoint of manufacturing.”
Rayer said that it’s easy for engineers to fall into “in-the-box thinking.” The hard part about that, as an engineer, is that you don’t see the advancements of technology.
“With crowdsourcing, the interesting part that I get is I see the advancements of technology because they’re shared with me. And when we put out a challenge, so many people are throwing out different methods, it forces me to learn new methods and ask questions, and meet the needs of new products.
“Traditionally, we were an automotive group. Then Airbus came to us and said ‘drones.’ For us, manufacturing is manufacturing. Never did a drone before, but with crowdsourcing, we started using the crowd to actually do aerodynamics; we used the crowd to get help with carbon fiber layup suggestions. We knew molding; we knew all the different manufacturing methods and how to get there. We just were challenged on ‘Well, take it this direction; take it that direction.’ So, crowdsourcing has actually been the idea generator.
“It is a great idea generator, and it helps to stimulate the minds of engineers, and, also, the manufacturing because there may be a challenge that I face, and I just ask the crowd. And the crowd goes, ‘Well, why don’t you do this?’ and I would be like, ‘Whoa, that’s a great idea! I’ve never thought of it because I’m in a box.
“I’m the old school guy, grew up in the 80s. Now, I think we are stair stepping in an incredible way, and I think one of the reasons is information. We’re able to share that information—that’s why I love co-creating because I’m like ‘Wow! Hey, guess what? I’ve got 20 different guys giving me information, versus my having to search for it, and research it, and test it. That’s a big advantage that I’ve never had.”
A Spirit and Culture of Innovation
It would be hard to find a manufacturer who doesn’t want to be innovative, either in a process that they apply or a product (or part) that they make. But are there any steps that manufacturing teams can take to become more innovative? What are the keys to getting there?
“For me, it’s the open mindedness,” said Rayer. “The one thing that helps me the most is being open minded and not being stifled by being the 48-year-old guy who knows it all. It’s opening my mind to a 21-year-old who says ‘I’ve got a great idea.’ And you listen to the idea and you work with them, and you work side by side, and you work through it, and you bring the two mindsets together, and you come up with brilliant ideas.
“I think that’s one of the greatest ways for innovation to happen—not being bound by what you know, but allowing those other inputs to come in. That’s where ‘co-create’ and what you know kind of come together in a great way. A lot of industries are stuck with ‘This is my way of doing it.’ We don’t think that way. We’re like, ‘Give us all your ideas, and we’ll work with you and blend them together and come up with something innovative, and something amazing.’ That takes a very open mind, and it takes the ability to change on a dime. That’s really hard for a lot of companies, but I really think that that’s the key.”
Although open-mindedness is essential to innovation, manufacturers need to be practical about what they believe to be innovative. Rather than being lured by flashy technology, people should work through the practical details of whether it’s likely to provide a return on investment for them, said Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer of robotics manufacturer Vecna Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Really understanding how the technology is going to integrate and provide value has got to be the focus, rather than ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ Theobald said. “Really cool is fun, but really cool doesn’t help you compete. One of the things that we do that really helps manufacturers is that we provide full simulation services. That question of, one, ‘will this work?’ and two, ‘will this increase our productivity?’ is a question that we can usually answer by running simulations in computers. One of the great things about that is, if the simulation shows that the application isn’t going to achieve your goals, well, you’ve invested maybe a few thousand dollars. But if you go to a full robot implementation just to find out that you’re not meeting your goals, then you’ve maybe wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars. So utilizing simulation and the expertise that we can bring to the table can really help avoid missteps in trying to adopt automation.”
Embracing a collaborative mindset and work style—both within one’s company and by partnering in different ways with suppliers, for example—can also help facilitate innovation, Theobald said.
“There are so many specific applications out there that no one person or company is ever going to be the expert in all of them. So as customers come to us with their problems, it’s very much a collaboration, and we’ll go back and forth with them. I think that’s one of the things that people really appreciate about Vecna—we’re not out there to just sell you a robot. We’re really there to help you solve a problem, and to do that cost effectively and to ensure that you’re going to look good in front of your boss, you’re going to get the kind of return on investment that you’re trying to achieve.
“It has to be a hand-in-hand process. I think, again, that’s also one of the reasons for our success, is because people like to work with people that they like. And one of the number one pieces of feedback that we get again and again is ‘Wow, we love working with your team—they’re not only knowledgeable and really good at what they do, but they’re also just really fun and great to work with.’”
Along with a collaborative approach, Theobald strongly believes that a company’s culture also plays an important role in its ability to innovate. That’s why Vecna encourages not just its engineers, but everyone on the team, to take on side projects that are fun. The message is to play, experiment, and have fun with technology.
“If they’ve got an idea, we encourage them to go try it. We’ve got everything from solar powered autonomous VW buses, to an electric motorcycle, to a fully autonomous mechanical owl that is pretty amazing. I mean, these are things that people do on their evenings and weekends.
“We make our engineering resources, our machine shops, our circuit board equipment, et cetera, available to our employees to do those kinds of projects. And I think we get a very strong payback there because a lot of times, there’s flowback from that because they’re learning things as they do those projects that they’re then able to bring to the customers, as well.
“I really emphasize to people that play is one of the most important things you can do to learn and be effective. I think a lot of people feel that the word ‘play’ is maybe appropriate for a 2- to-10-year-old. But that’s really how humans learn: You play around with something, you try something, you break stuff, you fail. That’s how we come to understand the world. And the people who are the most innovative, the people who are the most effective at solving problems, are the people who have done the most playing. They understand the world better.”
In addition to encouraging his team to explore the fun side of engineering, Theobald said that it’s important that team members know that it’s okay to fail—it’s part of the process of learning.
“We say ‘fail early, fail often.’ Because a lot of times, when you give people a job to do, they don’t want to show it to anybody until they feel like it’s exactly like they want. We really discourage that approach here. Our goal here is to get something in front of the customer as quickly as possible, and to really get that effective collaboration and feedback loop happening. Because if you go off and build something for a month or two months, or a year, the only thing you can be guaranteed of is that it’s not going to be quite right because you weren’t getting feedback along the way.”
Manufacturing Is a Critical Component of the Innovation Cycle
Vecna Technologies prides itself on having its products made locally, primarily in Massachusetts. Theobald said there’s a long list of benefits that come from keeping its manufacturing close by, including some that support innovation.
“We had some products that were being manufactured in the Far East, and we decided to onshore those. Some of the benefits are just around the flexibility and the time to make a change in the product and get that product in hand,” he said. “The ability to deal with smaller batches and quantities that meet more specific customer needs is a huge benefit. But a lot of it is that when technology is changing quickly, the manufacturing process actually becomes a critical component of the innovation cycle. If you’re trying to design a product and then ship it off to the Far East to be manufactured, not only does that create difficulties for the manufacturing, but you’re also losing a tremendous amount of learning and knowledge around what the next iterations of the product might be.
“So we’ve just found that having it here in the U.S.—in Massachusetts, in our particular case—has really helped us to shorten those product development cycles, to be more responsive to our customers, to deal with manufacturing issues in a matter of minutes and hours versus weeks and months. Having the manufacturing team be able to talk to the product development team and say ‘Hey, we could reduce the cost on this robot by $15 each if we could move this screw over here, or use the same kind of screw.’ That type of communication can really happen effectively when it’s all one team. The manufacturing team often times is a prime source of innovative ideas on how to improve the product and make it better.
“So there are a whole bunch of benefits. We also use our robots in our manufacturing process, so, in a sense, we’re using our robots to build our robots. So learning from that process helps us improve our own products as well. Because they’re using the product to build the product, our engineers have a lot of insights that other engineers who are sort of just working behind the desk might not realize.”
For more on Vecna Technologies, see Mobile Autonomous Robots Are Built for the Long Haul.