Machine Design

How to foster a culture of innovation

Earlier this year, Dr. Fritz Faulhaber GmbH, a key manufacturing facility of MICROMO, Clearwater, Fla., won Germany’s prestigious Best Innovator award. The award is sponsored by the German Ministry of Economics and Technology and consultancy A.T. Kearney. We recently discussed the company’s approach to innovation with Engineering Manager Dr. Thomas Bertolini.


Why is innovation so important?

We optimize electromechanical drives for our customers so they, in turn, can market successful and profitable products and equipment. To provide such capabilities and stay ahead of the competition, we rely on the latest technology and advanced ideas.

Is a culture of innovation embedded within the organization?

Our innovation strategy is defined in a short and simple way by our President, Dr. Fritz Faulhaber, Jr.: “We must always be a nose length ahead of the competitors — but the nose should not be 1‑m long.” This phrase says it all about our orientation towards innovation.

Our companies put this into practice first, by encouraging every employee to submit proposals for improvements, new innovations, and patent-worthy ideas. We recognize notable suggestions company wide, provide financial incentives, and offer the chance to engage top management in discussions on innovation.

Faulhaber also hires a lot of technically savvy people. We have about 200 engineers and technicians among our 1,300 employees worldwide, and they’re especially encouraged to explore new ideas. We give them the space and time to delve into new technical possibilities — even if it is highly uncertain whether this will eventually lead to a successful product. We also maintain many connections to universities and governmental societies.

Finally, and most important, the entire management team is technically educated and they live — and love! — innovation. Therefore, they act as an innovation-amplifier by example and are actively involved in many technical discussions and decisions.

Do you have a formal innovation process?

We’ve installed many helpful tools, procedures, and software, such as an innovation database to manage ideas — from collecting and categorizing them to budgeting for follow-up. But we don’t have a formal process where people are told: “Now you have to be creative for an hour!”  That does not work.

That said, we do have an advanced-engineering team of four people. They’re experts in micromechanical systems, electric motor know-how, and electronics. Having such a small group forces them to cooperate with other engineers and R&D people for support. The effect: The advanced-engineering team is a living part of the entire organization and not an isolated group. This creates acceptance through cooperation early in the development stage, so we prevent the “not invented here” syndrome.

What other factors go into being an innovator?

A successful product portfolio must contain three elements. The first is technology maintenance, which involves cost reduction, minor changes in adapting the latest electronics, quality improvements, and so on.

Next is responding to market pull: what customers and potential customers need. Our business-development department transforms these requests into specifications from which we develop product platforms that are the basis for new, application-specific devices.

The third element we call technology push. This involves totally new products based on novel manufacturing methods, technology advances, and cutting-edge materials.

The difference in time to market is tremendous. While product maintenance takes less than a year, market pull needs two to five years get new products in the hands of customers. Technology push may take 10 or more years. But to be a true innovator, it’s essential to invest the time and take a long-term view.

We also systematically screen products from our competitors and from leading companies outside our markets. In the latter case, the goal is to learn about other technologies that we might put to use. This we call “cross-technologizing,” a process much like “cross-selling” in the sales world.

Before developing a new product, the means to manufacture it must exist. We recognize that we’re not experts in all fields. Thus, the know-how of our partners is very important. Over the years, we’ve systematically developed our network of suppliers and tightly cooperate with many of them in fundamental research and in the early stages of product development.

Finally, it’s critical to distribute all this data among our technical employees. Here, we rely on tools and methods ranging from patent reviews and product benchmarking to roundtable discussions and knowledge-sharing software. And we schedule regular updates and workshops from technical experts inside and outside our company. Knowledge-management serves as the base for innovation.

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