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Innovation Collaboration

Innovation Should Stretch from Top Floor to Shop Floor

Aug. 30, 2022
When R&D, production, packing and even marketing are in close proximity, new ideas can thrive in a different way.

Factories have been a thriving part of the global economy for more than two centuries, well before Henry Ford and his famous assembly line. Back then, manufacturing was at the cutting edge of U.S. technology. Early innovations like the Bessemer process for producing steel, the power loom, and the humble tin can were changing the way we made and transported goods at breakneck speed.

Radical innovation in manufacturing accelerated through World War II, when factories quickly switched gears to produce as much military equipment as possible. The shift in processes both helped win the war and generated millions of jobs and a huge increase in profits for the industrial complex. Finally, in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, computers were integrated into both initial design of products and processes and the machinery itself.

Throughout the meteoric rise of American manufacturing, designers of goods and the people that ultimately made those ideas into tangible items worked together to push the envelope of what could be done. Only after production specialists and designers were separated, beginning in the 1980s and accelerated by Apple Inc.’s outsourcing model in 2005, did manufacturing jobs hit their sharp decline.

Because manufacturing has historically been such a vital part of the U.S. economy, business, political and intellectual leaders are constantly searching for the next step in the industry’s evolution. It seems that innovation has stalled, and factories are ripe for something new to breathe life back into them.

Innovation, however, is a loaded concept. It may be the answer everyone is looking for, but more in the way that it changes how we do business rather than the tools we use.

Innovation Is Not Defined by Technology Alone

The conversation surrounding reviving American manufacturing often centers around innovation. As a very tech-focused society, we naturally gravitate toward the idea that newer, faster, more AI-dependent machines will restore American factories to their former glory—and, if this model offers fewer jobs, at least they are “better”—that is to say, more highly skilled jobs.

The truth, though, is that U.S. industries already excel at imagining new technologies, yet manufacturing has recovered very few of the millions of jobs lost, with a more than 20% decline in workforce share. And more efficient tools haven’t seemed to increase overall profit, either, as manufacturing’s share of GDP is at a historically low level.

The biggest challenge, then, might not be innovating technologies at all. For manufacturers, the challenge lies more in bringing the process of innovation back under the manufacturing roof.

Research, development and production go hand-in-hand. A more vertically integrated process is an innovative return to a way of doing business that helped make the U.S. the manufacturing powerhouse that it once was. When R&D, production, packing and even marketing are under one roof (or at least in the same country), new ideas can thrive in a different way.

Creating a Culture of Innovation

Workers bring their ideas to the table when they feel safe doing so. A few years ago, Google researchers set out to discover what makes the “perfect team.” They found that employees need to feel secure in their positions and believe that their opinions matter.

If manufacturers can create that space of psychological safety, innovative ideas will come from the bottom as well as from the top. Encouraging different teams to work together in a seamless manner helps foster this type of culture.

Bringing R&D specialists in close contact with production operators highlights how important production is to innovation. After all, if we don’t have innovation within our manufacturing systems, how can we produce newer, better, more sustainable products? Having production involved in the R&D process raises the esteem of manufacturing work and helps encourage new workers to come on board, with the promise of being part of real innovation in the future.

In addition, on-the-job training needs to focus on more than just how to run the same piece of machinery over and over for the next 20 years. We need to encourage everyone, from the CEO down to the newest assembler, to voice their opinions on how things could be improved and what processes and equipment would be more efficient. Exciting innovations can come from this type of culture.

The Market is Ready for Quality, Not Just Quantity

U.S. consumers have shown that they are ready for higher standards in what we produce, and to answer for the impact of what they buy. This means that companies can return to a set of manufacturing rules where the cheapest option isn’t always the best and won’t always lead to ultimate financial success.

An integrated innovation process can also have sustainability and social responsibility benefits, as companies know who they are sourcing from and how the workers who produce their products are being treated. These are things both consumers and potential workers seek out. Sustainability and corporate social responsibility have to be part of the innovation process if the manufacturing industry in the U.S. is going to survive.

If manufacturing disappears from the U.S., so does innovation. Companies need to take a hard look at bringing their processes closer. While it isn’t feasible for every corporation to build a factory, every business can look for manufacturing options that are closer to home, have a wider array of services and can act as partners in the innovation process rather than as a utilitarian assembly line. 

When production team members are viewed as innovators instead of unskilled laborers, that is when accelerated invention in the manufacturing industry will return the U.S. to the top of the manufacturing heap.

Jordan Erskine is president of Dynamic Blending Specialists, a global cosmetics manufacturing company committed to delivering innovative solutions to businesses of all sizes.

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