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How Manufacturers Can Innovate — No Robots Necessary

How Manufacturers Can Innovate — No Robots Necessary

Innovation can involve some trial and error, but manufacturers who practice it are bound to improve over time.

If manufacturers could press a big red button that said “Innovate,” it’s not hard to imagine what they would want it to do.

Aging assembly lines might be instantly replaced with a row of mechanical arms that did all the final touches of goods being produced.

Whiteboards in the research and development unit might be switched out in favour of 3D printers that could visualize and test the next breakthrough product idea.

A fleet of self-driving vehicles might pull up outside a plant, ready to take items to their next stage of the supply chain.

All of these innovations are possible, but many Canadian manufacturers might not be ready to deploy them.

Part of the hesitation could come down to cost. Manufacturing is already a capital intensive business. Even if the most audacious innovations could help them, no one has an infinite budget.

There might also be manufacturers who are not ready to be the early adopters of robotics and similar innovations. Given what it might mean in terms of changes to their longstanding business processes, it might be more prudent to be what is sometimes called a “fast follower” instead.

And yet smart factories and other pillars of what is sometimes called Industry 4.0 aren’t the only innovation opportunities available to manufacturing companies.

Innovation is not limited to the practice of inventing new equipment. It can simply be the application of new tools and practices in a unique way that brings value to the organization and its customers.

You can start with small innovations, in other words, and in areas of the business that may be more prepared for them.

By testing out certain innovations as pilot projects, manufacturers will be able to test and learn what works, and how they should be prepared if they take on even bigger breakthrough ideas.

Innovate in the way you sell

Maybe this sounds familiar: you’re a manufacturer based in Canada but you have customers in multiple countries. Each of these customers is very different from one another, which makes creating quotes a long process. Picture lines on a spreadsheet that number in the tens of thousands — and a few very worn-out sales reps.

Though it has been available for many years and widely adopted in other industries, a cloud-based CRM can represent a huge innovation for a manufacturer’s sales operation.

Besides giving reps back hours in their day, a CRM also makes sales forecasts more accurate because all the customer information is up to date and in a single place. This in turn can drive a higher win rate, which could make a big difference in the ability to budget for other innovations.

Innovate in the way you collaborate

The manufacturing sector is just as prone to setting up business silos as companies operating in retail, financial services in any other market. It’s not that people don’t want to work together. Sometimes they just forget to share important information, and finding space to sit down and have in-person meetings isn’t always easy.

Social media offers an interesting sort of object lesson in how collaboration can happen more easily and more frequently. As innovative as it may sound, you can bring many of the same elements inside a company through tools such as Chatter and Slack.

Cloud-based collaboration frees employees working in different departments to connect in real-time to share documents and data. Even better, manufacturers can use the same tools to take customers behind the scenes as new relationships begin and get fast feedback on proof of concepts and other new ideas. This builds greater business agility.

Innovate in how you manage

Much like the links in the proverbial chain, manufacturers are only as strong as the individual contributions of the people who work across the company. While mobile devices have offered a powerful way to liberate employees from being chained to their desks, it has introduced questions about how to monitor everyone’s performance.

When managers check in with employees, for instance, they want to have productive conversations. Coaching should not be based on hypothetical scenarios but real-life situations employees have worked through. The direction managers give should also be informed by trends and patterns that are affecting the company as a whole.

Enter analytics applications, which are also available on demand through the cloud. These tools provide an innovative way to get visibility into what’s happening at a manufacturer at a high level, as well as more granular views into specific departments.

This takes away the guesswork in evaluating the performance of sales reps, those in marketing, customer service and other lines of business. Having a 360 degree view of the business is also a way of bringing people together in a transparent manner.

Conclusion: Picking and choosing innovation opportunities

Not sure where to start? That’s okay. It’s a common challenge.

Sometimes organizations are driven to pursue innovation for fear they’ll lose business to a competitor. In other cases, innovation is seen as a way of solving a problem that’s hurting the bottom line.

Take a look at all your manufacturing key performance indicators (KPIs). Where do you need to move the needle the most? If the technology is there to help, that might be a sign you’re on the right track.

Next, set a specific, measurable, action-oriented and time-based goal — otherwise known as SMART — around the innovation you’re exploring. The more detailed you can get on gauging the success, the better.

Innovation can involve some trial and error, but those who practice it are bound to improve over time. It will make you a stronger manufacturer — maybe as strong as a robot.

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