Don't Just Sit There, Innovate

The sky is falling! 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.

Regardless of the economic climate or the stimulus package du jour, machine builders need to take this time to talk to their customers. 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.

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. 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. Revisit the entire story, "In Good Company," for more information.

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. 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.