Innovating for the future? Invest in people

Published Monday, September 30, 2019

The light bulb is known as the symbol of a good idea, but it can symbolize something else: how technology changes over time. It’s gone from a piece of filament in a glass bulb to efficient LEDs, automated lighting for energy savings and even car headlights that adjust autonomously.

“Look at the lightbulb. Where has it gone from 120 years ago?” asked Steve Pecis, vice president of operations at DWFritz Automation. “Lighting solutions are that much more efficient, that much more uniform. There’s so much innovation that’s happened around lighting.”

He spoke on a panel with other manufacturing innovators at the annual Manufacturing Symposium, hosted by Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt and Aldrich Advisors on Friday, Sept. 27 in Portland. OBI was a partner at the event and OBI CEO Sandra McDonough participated in a panel on legislative and regulatory issues with Sen. Betsy Johnson and Mike Freese of the Romain Group. Pecis, along with Andy LaFrazia, president of ControlTek, and Bill Huseby, president of SigmaDesign, addressed innovation and the future of manufacturing.

Innovations in manufacturing abound, including open source technology, artificial intelligence, automation, robotics and 3-D printing. Throughout the discussion though, time and again their comments turned from technology to people. 

“We have machines, robots, processes and procedures. But what we really have is people who do that work,” Huseby said. “And I thought, ‘Wow that’s really innovative.’ Because we do the work. We strive to do it better. All those machines need people.”

As new technology comes along, employees must be trained to use it. They must be willing to try new things, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, Huseby said. Adopting that learning paradigm and investing in innovation is worth it, LaFrazia said.

“Plan for mistakes. Plan for time. Plan for training and invest in training.” LaFrazia said. “Spend that couple extra thousand dollars to send someone across country for a couple weeks to work in a factory using that piece of equipment before we put it in our plant.”

When employees have trouble adjusting to those changes, Huseby makes it his job to sit down and talk with them, to help guide them into the next big step for the company.

“I told them it’s going to be hard but how important it was to me and the organization that they try and embrace it,” he said. “I had confidence they could do it. And it turned around.”

Sometimes this new technology is called “disruptive,” meaning it’s something new that replaces something current, making the current tech obsolete.

Disruptive technology dates back 8,000 years, Pecis said, to business’s first revolution: farming. From there it took about 7,700 years to reach the next disruption: steam powered factories. Next, 120 years later, electricity started powering factories. Then 90 years later we put a man on the moon. A mere 20 years after that we invented the Internet, and finally, 10 years after that, we sequenced the human genome.

“The pace of innovation and the pace of technology is getting faster and faster,” Pecis said.

Today’s manufacturers must be ready for the next big innovative change. And they must bring their employees along for the ride.

“The greatest danger to companies is standing still,” Pecis said. “When we talk about disruption and we talk about innovation and we talk about speed, that’s the biggest takeaway.”