Another 80 Years of Innovation

Sept. 9, 2009
This issue marks the official 80th anniversary of MACHINE DESIGN’s debut in September of 1929.

This issue marks the official 80th anniversary of MACHINE DESIGN’s debut in September of 1929. Despite being published in a time of crumbling economics, the writing in that first issue had a tone of guarded optimism for the future.

What gave rise to this hopefulness was a spurt of innovation in the 1920s led by new developments in automotive and radio technologies. So it is fair to speculate about the advances that will begin to change the industrial landscape as we embark on the next 80 years. In this issue you’ll find educated opinions about where we’re headed from a number of experienced technologists.

Clearly, innovations have set the course of technology. But an increasing number of observers say the culture and environment within the U.S. does not foster innovation. Gerard “Gus” Gaynor is in this camp. He was once an engineering manager at 3M and now is a consultant who has written several books on managing engineers. Gaynor worked at 3M back in the days when Post-it Notes and other classic innovations were emerging. The experience gave him a ringside seat on the development of products now considered textbook cases of innovation.

“The U.S. government is talking about innovation as though you get up tomorrow morning and innovate. They don’t understand the process. That’s not how it happens,” says Gaynor. A frequent mistake is to confuse project management with innovation, he says. And he adds that true innovation seldom comes from the upper ranks of company management. It is more likely to bubble up from the bottom of the org chart. After all, “The Xerography process was turned down by General Motors, Kodak, and other companies,” he points out.

Firms that give employees free time to pursue their own ideas are more likely to spawn innovations, he says, but only if they hire employees with an innovator’s mindset. He cites a time in his own career when he gave one of his engineers several months to work on projects of his own choosing. Within a few days, the man was back looking for an assignment. “Some people crave freedom but don’t know what to do when they get it,” he says.

But Gaynor says many companies today simply lack a culture of idea exchange that promotes innovation. “It used to be that people would go to lunch and keep talking about what they were doing on the bench,” he says. “But when I talk to younger people today, they often say they wouldn’t consider discussing work on their own time.”

He thinks cubicles are another obstacle. “Engineers once sat in bullpens. When you were going to lunch you might stop and talk with someone about what you were working on,” he says. “You’d yell across the room for a print and your colleagues would have a general idea about your problems. Now, people lock themselves up in cubicles and you don’t get the same kind of information sharing. People in cubicles next to each other will communicate through e-mail rather than face to face.”

We might be tempted to add that people holed up in cubicles are also more likely to spend time on pursuits far afield from company business. They may not innovate, but their Facebook page will be right up to date.

Leland Teschler, Editor

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