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How to Bring Innovation into Your Machine Shop

September 20, 2014 / , , , , , , , , ,


In today’s world, most manufacturing executives wouldn’t exactly consider metal cutting to be the most innovative industry. Important? Yes. Evolving? Yes. But innovative? Probably not.

However, experts are saying that too many people underestimate the value that innovation can bring to any industry—or to any company for that matter. A recent article from Jeffrey Chidester, director of Policy Programs at University of Virginia, believes that innovation is the key to saving American manufacturing. And he’s not just talking about efforts from big names like Google and Apple.

“For over a century, America has produced individuals and ideas that have transformed how we interact with the world around us, and it remains the global leader today,” Chidester says in the article published by IndustryWeek. “Yet, while America continues to lead the way in disruptive innovations, its insatiable drive to open new frontiers sometimes overlooks the importance of innovating within current industries.”

Chidester goes on to argue that it would serve our country (and its industries) better to stop thinking “outside the box” and start thinking “inside the box” so that we can enlarge what we already have. This concept, widely used throughout Germany, focuses less on radical innovation and more on incremental improvement.

And while Chidester’s argument is focused more on smaller firms creating technology for the manufacturing industry—not necessarily the manufacturers themselves being innovators—the case for innovation holds. If innovation is the key to leadership, the question becomes: How can your machine shop innovate? If given the opportunity, what new ideas could your staff come up with to improve productivity, save costs, or expand your business? How can you “enlarge your box” to become an industry leader?

If we use Germany’s theory of incremental improvement as a basis for innovation, the concept seems less daunting. Instead of trying to revolutionize your operation, start with trying to find a new approach within the ordinary processes you follow every day. Not sure where to start? The Harvard Business Review offers four steps for “finding something original in the ordinary:”

What could this look like in a machine shop? D&J Technologies, a machine shop featured this white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, was able to expand its “box” by simply re-evaluating its outsourced services. After taking a close look at its operation, the shop discovered that sending out parts for nickel-plating was causing a bottleneck and making it difficult to guarantee on-time delivery of finished parts. By bringing plating in-house, D&J was able to provide its customers with an additional service, remove a production bottleneck, and speed up the delivery process.

A recent article from Modern Machine Shop goes even further by suggesting that shops should consider forming their own insurance companies to save money on taxes. “Section 831(b) of the Internal Revenue Code specifically creates a tax incentive for businesses to form their own small insurance companies that can provide them with a broad range of risk management capabilities,” the article states. “Basically, the captive insures those risks that a typical property and casualty insurance company does not, such as the loss of a large customer or a key employee.” (You can read the full article here.)

The point is that innovation doesn’t have to be about iPhones and analytical software, and it shouldn’t only be expected from tech firms. In fact, many people consider Disney to be an innovative company because of how it runs its business, not because of what it makes. Can your customers say the same thing about you?