Immediately after listening to a presentation at The FABRICATOR’s Leadership Summit last week, a metal fabrication executive turned on his iPhone®, rose his eyebrows, and, smiling, showed me the screen. The iPad® 2 had been announced minutes earlier.
The moment couldn’t have been more appropriate. We had just finished listening to Mike Simpson, director of systems operations for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). He had just wrapped up his presentation on how innovation drives success. Judging how that business executive sitting next to me reacted to news of the next iPad, I think Apple has innovation down to a science.
Innovation is a vague term. Simpson borrowed from Doug Hall, the former product developer at Procter & Gamble who founded Eureka! Ranch International, an organization focusing on innovation and product development. Hall defined innovation as “meaningful uniqueness.”
Jobs certainly made the Apple brand meaningfully unique. The company’s core customer base is one of the most loyal out there. They’re passionate. People appreciate sleek design enough to pay a premium for it, even though alternative devices may be less expensive and have more features.
People may not care about or need those additional features. But they know when they use an Apple product, it’s a different experience, both in the digital and tactile sense. Form following function doesn’t apply with Apple; if anything, form and function are equal partners, and the company has successfully tapped into an audience who are passion about that idea.
All this focuses on Apple's product innovation: designs that inspire. But the reality is most U.S. manufacturers are in the service business, even though the government doesn’t classify them as such. Job shops provide product line suppliers with a service: the quick turnaround of a quality fabrication. So how does innovation enter the picture? Sure, you can innovate your process to be more efficient, but is quick turnaround truly innovative? Does it spur passion in customers, or make a job shop meaningfully unique? I’m not so sure.
There may be another way, and one anecdote NIST’s Simpson shared last week hints at some specifics. He referred to Drew Greenblatt, CEO of Marlin Steel Wire Products, a Baltimore, Md., company that recently entered the sheet metal fabrication space. The FABRICATOR also covered the company late last year.
Marlin doesn’t sell products; it sells solutions.
OK, that sounds trite, an empty sales pitch. All sorts of companies say they’re “selling solutions.” A solution may make a company’s proposal unique, but does it make it meaningful?
Managers at Marlin try to make it meaningful. They visit plants and work with personnel to make overall operations more efficient. Marlin salespeople show how a wire basket with innovative design has wide-reaching implications. Here’s what Greenblatt told me last year:
“What’s the fit, form, and function of all this? What are you trying to accomplish—and not just this process, but the process before and after this? So we really get a lay of the land when it comes to a customer’s part flow. Then we come up with suggestions, draw it out, and demonstrate that this specific container or basket actually can hold parts and articulate them in a way so they can run the processes faster. Or we can design a container in a way that we can squeeze in more parts; all of a sudden your heat-treat line is 40 percent more efficient. Then the choke point moves somewhere else in the factory, and that means you may not need to run the heat-treat line at night anymore. So those three guys who were making $25 an hour working the night shift can be taken to the day shift and moved somewhere else. All this happens because our [material handling] container is optimized.”
That kind of overwhelming ROI may spur passion. Such proposals shift the conversational tone from skepticism to inspiration: If heat treating becomes 40 percent more efficient, what else can the factory accomplish? Put another way, introducing such ROI may make the customer feel better about his or her business, worry less, and spend time thinking about what’s really important--people: co-workers, family, and friends. Therein lies the passion.
I admit that the path to passion is a bit less direct than the one Apple found. But I suppose a long path is better than no path at all. Besides, finding efficiencies in a customer’s business is a logical exercise, and logical exercises are easier than discovering product designs that inspire people.
For many job shops, finding real efficiencies can uncover the path to a customer’s real passion. As Apple has proved time and time again, therein lies real money.