Don’t Just Sit There, Innovate

Embrace the Opportunity to Rise Above the Panic Surrounding Economic Upheaval

Mike BacidoreBy Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

The global financial infrastructure that we’ve prospered under for decades is in collapse.
Piece by piece, the economic dome of safety that has brightened our days, that has coaxed our financial fortunes from the very soil and that has drizzled periodically on our parades is crumbling, cracking, dropping right out of the air and smashing to the ground at our feet. There’s no telling if and when the keystone will fall.

What’s an engineer to do?

Watching the minute-by-minute updates of debt and equity exchanges around the world is one option. That way, you should be able to predict rather accurately when you will be laid off. Job worries became the top concern of U.S. citizens in the February poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. It leapfrogged the financial crisis and left the housing crisis in the dust, ranked as the top financial issue by 42% of participants.

It’s no wonder. Large-scale downsizing efforts dominate the headlines. Caterpillar to Slash 20,000 Jobs. Chrysler Cuts 13,000 More. I know it isn’t pretty, even at companies that haven’t been cutting employees. Our current Web poll, for example, asks which measures are being taken by companies that are maintaining their staffing levels. Training is popular, but it’s not the No. 1 answer. More than one-third of the controls engineers who responded say that they’re being encouraged to take time off during this global recession.

This will, of course, give them more time to sit at home and watch those market tickers scrolling across the bottom of the screen and monitor the effects of the U.S. economic stimulus package as they trickle up from local government projects. But, as a machine builder, what you really want to know is this: How do we get a drink from that stream?

The answer is obvious, regardless of the economic climate or the stimulus package du jour. Talk to the people who use your machines. Discuss their problems, and address their issues. Develop a solution. This is what the smart companies—the ones that will still be around when the tough times end—are doing. They’re not sitting around, watching the sky fall. They’re continuing to create new offerings that address the needs of their customers.

When times are good, you’re drinking from the fire hose. Keeping up with production demands is your primary concern. But now that the pressure has decreased, you finally have the time to retool or redesign or reinvent yourself to better align your machines’ capabilities with what your customers want.

I’ve said it before. If necessity is the mother of invention, then application must be the father of innovation. A new idea is only as valuable as its ability to fill a need. If not for the application or use of an invention, its benefits remain invalidated and largely unrealized.

New machine controls and automation constantly are created, and they’re often combined in inventive ways. Some promise value, and others over-deliver. The winner of the 2008 Control Design Innovator Awards competition was one of the others. Graham Engineering of York, Pa., changed the controls on the Graham Wheel, a non-PET bottle-molding machine (revisit the entire story at The main component of the wheel spins around a horizontally mounted axis, where extruders feed plastic into a flow head to form bottles in virtually any type of thermoplastic. What separated Graham from other machine builders was that it reinvigorated its 30-year-old rotary blow-molding machine by addressing the practical-application needs of one of its customers, Ring Container in Oakland, Tenn. Ring owns and operates several proprietary wheel blow-mold machines designed in conjunction with Graham. Sam Kerley, controls engineering manager at Ring Container, explains the big benefit of Graham’s change in controls was realized via closed-loop servo-type control, giving it the ability to execute more precise parison programming, which allows machine users like Ring to make thermoplastic bottles faster and lighter. “The parison programmers can fine-tune smaller points with the new system,” says Kerley. “It makes a big difference to be able to reduce plastic waste and still add more plastic where it’s needed.”

So, what have you done for your customer lately? The nominating period for the 2009 Innovator Awards competition is open. If you’ve already made an innovative improvement to a solution you offer to a customer, you can enter online at If you haven’t done anything yet, then now is a good time to make that step. That way, you’ll still be around to enter next year’s competition.

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