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The Importance of Ongoing Innovation for Manufacturing

We must bring together multiple disciplines where product development and initial prototyping overlap

Published: Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 08:12

Continual product and process innovation are crucial for commercially successful products to maintain their industry dominance, according to MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) industry co-director Vah Erdekian.

At the MIT Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity annual summit held Oct. 27–28, 2011, students from LGO attended sessions led by industry, government, and academic authorities on manufacturing. In his talk on “Innovation in Manufacturing: From Product Innovation to Productivity,” Erdekian described the case of the U.S. watch industry, which achieved product breakthroughs in the mid-1800s and took the majority of market share for pocket watches from the Swiss, employing hundreds of thousands of American workers at its height. But because the industry wasn’t able to keep innovating, it lost its market share back to Switzerland, which led the shift to wristwatches starting in the 1920s.

Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) industry co-director Vah Erdekian speaks at the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity annual summit.

Allocating excessive assets to manufacturing near the end of a product’s life cycle deceives companies into not investing in product innovation, leading to abrupt loss of market share and worse, Erdekian said. This theme can be seen in industries ranging from the U.S. watch industry of 100 years ago to modern high-tech leaders such as Lucent and Nortel, he added.

The role of advanced manufacturing, Erdekian argued, is to bring together multiple disciplines (e.g., manufacturing engineering, quality engineering, test engineering, design for X) where product development and initial prototyping overlap, so the manufacturer can quickly achieve quality and cost targets, and gain market share. But advanced manufacturing is also concerned with finding the right level of investment in both process and product, so assets can be allocated most efficiently, he said.

In commenting on the presentations, LGO students drew from their diverse backgrounds in manufacturing and operations. For Matt Kasenga, formerly a practice engineer at steelmaker ArcelorMittal, there is not enough top talent going into manufacturing, despite a growing need. “Two themes were pervasive today: We in the United States are losing ground in the global manufacturing race, and the skilled manufacturing talent necessary to succeed is currently a scarce resource,” he said.

Nori Ogura said that since being at LGO, she’s gotten a much better sense of the larger connections between companies, partners, and other actors in the economy. “It’s a great idea that the government and other institutions are looking at policies that will help smaller startup companies develop innovations that have high front-end costs through shared tools and expertise,” said Ogura, who was previously a hardware engineer at a flash memory company.

And Erna Pardede said that one of the day’s assumptions—that geographic co-location of research, engineering, and manufacturing was important—rang true. “In my own experience, working [at Boeing] on the 787 program, we were slow to respond to issues that came up because engineering was located far from manufacturing,” she noted.

By demonstrating their experience and commitment to manufacturing and operations at the LMP summit, LGO students offered a glimpse of the important role they’ll play in revitalizing manufacturing.

Story by Josh Jacobs and Alice Waugh. Reprinted with permission of MITnews.


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