How U.S. Manufacturers Can Create More Innovative Products

October 26, 2015 | American Manufacturing, Mechanical Engineering

Innovation means having the gears turning and lightbulbs working in the heads of your employees.Innovation is the lifeblood of American manufacturing. U.S. manufacturers work hard every day to create stunning new intellectual properties that can differentiate them from the competition, whether that IP is a new way of making things or a new product altogether.

The innovation factor in a product or process is so important that many manufacturers have started to collaborate with one another in organizations such as the National Alliance for Jobs and Innovation (NAJI) to protect their precious IPs from theft and infringement by unscrupulous foreign competitors.

With this in mind, how can American manufacturers step up their game when it comes to creating truly innovative IPs? What are the steps that you can take to create better, more innovative products faster and more efficiently?

This was the focus of an article that Marlin Steel’s CEO wrote for his Inc. column a while back. Here are a few of the highlights from that article:

Innovation Tip #1: Hire More Engineers and Scientists

If you want the biggest innovations, you’ve got to get access to the biggest brains. Scientists and engineers are not only smart, they’ve got the training and knowledge to be able to familiarize themselves with your products and production processes and find ways to improve them.

As Marlin’s CEO says in his Inc. post, “If you have a smaller roster of engineers than your competitors, you will be at a disadvantage. In this economy, you might be pleasantly surprised with the quality of the talent now available.”

While innovation might be a fairly organic, even random, process (you never really know which of your employees will come up with the next big idea), highly trained personnel such as production engineers are better-equipped to come up with actionable solutions for improving the innovation factor of your products than less well-trained personnel would be.

Innovation Tip #2: Encourage All Employees to Think Like Engineers

As important as it is to get those highly-trained engineers and scientists, it’s important to remember that innovation is not always a predictable process. Sometimes, it’s the guy working the front lines that has the best innovation for your company’s products sitting in his head.

All too often, these ideas get ignored, either by the employer or by the employees themselves.

Why? Because, in many cases, there’s no incentive on the employee’s part to innovate or bring innovative ideas to management.

As the Marlin Steel CEO says in his article, “If you provide no incentive for your employees to come up with suggestions that will save the company money, you are missing a golden source of ideas.”

How can you incentivize innovation so that every worker thinks like an engineer?

First, be open to new ideas. When an employee has a suggestion for improving production, try to listen and be open-minded about the idea. If employees know you won’t just reject an idea out of hand, they’ll be more comfortable bringing potentially game-changing ideas to your attention.

Second, reward innovations that work. When you take an employee’s idea and apply to your production successfully, recognize that employee’s achievement and reward them accordingly. This will encourage other employees to bring their best ideas to your attention.

Innovation Tip #3: Upgrade the Team You Have

Train the team you have, and you'll soon have the team you want.We can’t always get engineering grads fresh out of college to fill every job slot. But, some of the brightest and most motivated people you could ever hope to find may already be working for you, all they need is a little polish.

This is why Marlin Steel invests heavily in employee training. As Marlin’s CEO says, “At Marlin, we pay 100% of the cost for employees to take courses related to their work, including courses towards their bachelor’s or master’s degrees... They will be the source of new ideas, because they will be taking classes and studying concepts that may be applicable to our challenges.”

Sometimes, upgrading the talent you already have is even better than trying to find a perfect fit from the talent pool of recent college grads, as you can focus their training and courses on the subjects that are most important to your company.

FYI: Fully 5% of Marlin’s payroll budget is dedicated to employee training. This not only helps Marlin's employees create more innovative products, it helps them be more flexible on the job.

Innovation Tip #4: Build Your Base in America

It’s important to focus your efforts in an area where you’ll have an easy time communicating with your team. For most U.S.-based manufacturing companies, this will naturally be the USA. Here, you have a single language that’s shared by all employees, relatively minor time-zone issues (the most severe time difference in the main 48 states is less than half a standard work shift).

Expanding operations to include foreign production facilities before you’ve established your American manufacturing base introduces many problems.

Marlin CEO Drew Greenblatt highlighted these issues in his Inc. post: “communication problems, delays in shipping, and all the complexity of separate locations, including time-zone mismatches. At Marlin, we hope to have foreign sales offices and factories someday, but first we will have a critical mass of engineering, manufacturing, sales, and administration in the good old USA.”

Communication problems, in particular, can be severely costly.

For example, mistranslations can cause a foreign factory location to massively over-produce a particular item well beyond what you actually needed or could reasonably sell in a financial quarter.

Time-zone differences between continents are huge, and make setting up conferences to sort out production goals and needs complicated.

Marlin Steel doesn’t want to be some commodity supplier of low-quality goods. The Marlin Steel method of approaching innovation has helped this company differentiate itself from competitors and grow remarkably in the past few years.

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