Innovation is key to survival for manufacturers

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm

Robert Tucker has a message for the nation’s manufacturers: Innovate or evaporate. Tucker, an international expert on innovation and author of "Driving Growth Through Innovation," brought that message to Wisconsin recently at this year’s Manufacturing Matters! Conference at the Midwest Airlines Center in downtown Milwaukee.
Hundreds of manufacturing executives attended the event to gain a greater understanding of the role that innovation can play in the future growth and success of their companies.
Tucker’s book is a must read for all businesses but has special relevance to Wisconsin manufacturers, in light of intense global competition.
Tucker believes that innovation, the concept of bringing new ideas to life, is the best way to drive growth, profitability and gain competitive advantage. Strategies to reduce costs produce bottom-line improvements, Tucker says, but don’t create top-line revenue that fuels long-term growth.
"Companies have to offer customers something new, something that they can’t get anywhere else and solves their problems in a superior way," Tucker says.
In his book, Tucker points to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 399 global executives who ranked innovation as their top strategic challenge. Although corporate leaders believe innovation holds the keys to future growth, other surveys reveal a strong sense of inadequacy in improving performance in this arena.
"In most companies today, the practice of innovation can be likened to the mating of pandas: infrequent, clumsy and often ineffective," Tucker writes.
The practice of innovation is largely unchanged from 20 years ago. "While the world has changed drastically, the approach to innovation remains ad hoc, unsystematic and ‘seat of the pants.’ "
Tucker points out that many of the great innovations of our day have been what he calls "happy accidents." Nutrasweet, today a $2 billion a year product, was discovered by a researcher attempting to find a drug to treat ulcers. Blockbuster drug Viagra was "accidentally" discovered by scientists attempting to stimulate receptors in the hearts of people with angina. Canon’s ink jet printer was discovered when a technician left a soldering iron on near a bottle of ink, he writes.
The Council on Competitiveness calls innovation the "single most important factor in determining Amercia’s success through the 21st century." Innovation gives rise to new industries and markets, fuels wealth creation and profits, and generates high-value, higher-paying jobs.
The council goes on to say that the need for innovation is greatest in the nation’s small and mid-size manufacturing sector. That puts Wisconsin, with its 11,000 small and mid-size manufacturers, at the epicenter of this sea tide of change.
Clearly, innovation is a critical business skill for the 21st century.
The Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) recognizes this critical need and is offering new services to help small manufacturers build a culture of innovation within their companies. This is accomplished by working with them to identify core strengths, create ideas for innovation in products, processes or services and explore new market opportunities.
Wisconsin’s small manufacturers are the foundation of our industrial sector and are vitally important to our economy. Efforts to promote innovation in our industrial sector will go a long way toward ensuring our long-term economic prosperity and reputation as a global manufacturing leader.

Sam Miller specializes in strategic innovation for the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

May 27, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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