NASA Mars Curiosity Rover

Innovation: Collaborating with the Competition

June 6, 2013
In order to push technologies and processes to the next level, "you have to reach out to other companies – even your competitors – and form a collaboration so you can handle a major innovation," says Mike Beffel, executive director at CCAM. "If you try to do it all yourself, chances are you're never going to get there."

When the next Mars rover, "Bridget," takes off in 2018, it will be packing exactly the kind of high-tech gear and scientific equipment you'd expect for an interplanetary expedition. 

But when it embarks, that futuristic piece of gadgetry will be running its experiments on a computer system already decades out of date.

See Also: Manufacturing Innovation & Product Development Strategy

"Our little rover is an incredible piece of technology," said Tom Enders, CEO of aircraft manufacturer EADS (IW 1000/59), which helped build Bridget with subsidiary Astrium and the European Space Agency. "But at her heart are computer processors from the '90s."

This was how Bridget was introduced to the IT world at the CeBIT computer expo earlier this year: not as the pinnacle of technological might, but as an example of one of the fundamental failings in the industry. 

Enders sees a gap between the ideas and products at the heart of industrial R&D, created by sticking some of the most talented and imaginative engineers in siloed industries and isolationist companies.

The result is the kind of disconnect embodied in the Bridget rover – a 21st century design featuring 21st century concepts, running 20th century software. 

To close this gap, he has called for the IT industry to join him in "setting out a cross-industry action plan, not just for aerospace, but for all the manufacturing industries facing this problem."

Doing so will mark a dramatic shift in innovation – breaking down proprietary walls that have kept competitors apart, and embarking on a new path of collaborative innovation.

Facilitating Collaboration

Mike Beffel, executive director at the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM), has been working through these problems for years.

"Companies are afraid that somebody else is going to steal their ideas and take them to market – that somebody else is going to profit from what they've done," he says. "That gives them this siloed, keep-it-to-yourself, private-research mentality that makes innovation impossible."

In order to push technologies and processes to the next level, "you have to reach out to other companies – even your competitors – and form a collaboration so you can handle a major innovation," he says. "If you try to do it all yourself, chances are you're never going to get there."

Over the past few years, there has been a rumbling in the market as manufacturers shift over to this kind of model, giving up the anachronistic, first-to-market ideal to help propel the industry through the innovation cycle. 

Along with that process, associations like CCAM, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) and the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation have been popping up and picking up steam to help enable that kind of collaboration.

"The collaboration model falls apart if you don't have the right protection for intellectual properties," Beffel says. "But you can go to a collaboration organization and do leading-edge research because you don't have the concern that it's going to be exploited by somebody else. It takes the pressure off and lets companies really innovate."

Organic Collaboration

Recently this work has been catching on even in the natural R&D environment. For example, Ford (IW 500/6) and GM (IW 500/4) -- typically fierce competitors, both in the marketplace and in research – have pooled their engineering teams to develop nine- and 10- speed automatic transmissions. The goal is to create identical hardware for the transmissions used in each company's trucks in order to maximize part commonality and provide economies of scale in pricing. 

The companies will then compete for market share by independently developing proprietary control software to run the machines.

For its part, EADs has teamed up with Embraer (IW 1000/644) and rival Boeing (IW 500/15) to develop aviation biofuel, a project that could help every aerospace company shore up its CO2 emissions – a movement that fits perfectly into Enders' plan. 

"Together, IT and aerospace can achieve great things," he said at the CeBIT event. "We already do. But if we set our minds to it and create a fresh approach, we can perhaps achieve a step change to rival the Wright Brothers."

And that, he said, is exactly what the industry needs.

About the Author

Travis M. Hessman | Editor-in-Chief

Travis Hessman is the editor-in-chief and senior content director for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He began his career as an intern at IndustryWeek in 2001 and later served as IW's technology and innovation editor. Today, he combines his experience as an educator, a writer, and a journalist to help address some of the most significant challenges in the manufacturing industry, with a particular focus on leadership, training, and the technologies of smart manufacturing.

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