Welders and other workers at The Roberts Co. in Winterville, N.C.--part of this year’s FAB 40 list of successful contract fabricators--are used to signing secrecy agreements from customers. Dave Staskelunas, the company’s vice president of fabrication services, said that more and more customers are requiring workers to keep quiet as they weld and form proprietary materials or designs. These designs aren’t patented, either. The risk of someone else coming out with the idea is probably less than someone outright stealing it during the drawn-out patent application process.
As a recent Bloomberg article aptly put it, the U.S. patent system “gives inventors a limited monopoly on their ideas in exchange for revealing them to the world so that others can build on them.”
The U.S patent system wasn’t developed with the Internet and globalization in mind. Government bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace compared to global business. It takes more than a year for a patent application to make it through the system, and during all that time the idea is out there for the world to see.
That’s why Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., recently introduced language into a spending bill that would create so-called “economic security” patents, which would remain secret. Bloomberg reported a snag, though: U.S. companies who have these secret patents won’t be able to file for patents in other countries. That’s a problem.
So what’s the solution? Can the patent system be adapted to modern business realities? I really don’t know, but I’m guessing not. That’s because today, let’s face it, the information superhighway has made information a commodity. Well, it’s not a commodity in the purest sense: There’s good information and bad information. But you can get it anywhere and at any time, creating a virtual red carpet for copycats.
What can’t be copied, though, is speed. I think that anyone who can develop ideas and act quickly will find rich rewards. So will any company that can eliminate needless activity out of any process, to get those ideas to market quickly.
Case in point: At LeanFAB--a lean manufacturing conference held last month in Minneapolis and sponsored by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association--Dick Kallage of KDC & Associates stood in front of an audience of fabricators and asked a simple question: “Why do we have daily production meetings?”
A well-run shop, he said, should run like a top. Sure, a job shop may have some unexpected demand, like a rush order; such demand variability is unavoidable in the job shop world. But if manufacturing cycle times are reduced enough, all orders will move at the speed of the rush order.
Modern manufacturing is about speed. That’s because these days, the speed of innovation is probably as important as the innovation itself. If an idea can’t be made real quickly, someone else will get that idea to market first. The best manufacturers--including world-class fabricators--make sure this doesn’t happen.