Letters 1/19/2012

Jan. 19, 2012
There seems to be a consensus among readers we heard from that the government and big business aren’t providing much in the way of training for science and technology jobs and careers while cutting way back on real R&D

No training? No R&D? No innovation?
There seems to be a consensus among readers we heard from that the government and big business aren’t providing much in the way of training for science and technology jobs and careers while cutting way back on real R&D, and that innovation has gone into hibernation in this country. But they do like the Patent Office, despite its faults.

Your recent editorial (“Training that Doesn’t Train Anyone,” Nov. 3) struck a spark. I work with young people by taking promising ones into my shop for a few weeks to train them on a variety of shop practices, including gear cutting, lathe and mill operation, grinding, metallurgy, heat treating, welding, CAD, and inspection. My shop is more complete than any college shop I’ve seen. The end result is that after three weeks, the student usually lands a job at $17/hr with full benefits.

One recent “graduate” phoned and told me that after two weeks he’s now manager/foreman over the grinding department in his company. He was a high-school graduate with fairly good grades and had graduated from a diesel-mechanics school, and couldn’t find a job.

It seems I know the skills that companies need but can’t find or won’t train people for. Humility prevents me from saying I must be a genius compared to the people the government has working for them as “educators.” Oh, and I do it for nothing.

Steve Tuttle

At the beginning of your editorial, you mention CAD software vendors offering training on their software to anyone who has fallen victim to an economy that the amazing prodigies in our government are so dedicated to improving. I hope those vendors are also training those people on what makes a good mechanical drawing or 3D part model. I once worked at a company that evidently hired designers and drafters based on the simple fact that they had once double-clicked an AutoCAD icon. Most of them were fired or quit without notice after a brief time. Learning a piece of software and learning a trade may go hand in hand, but one does not equal the other. For example, I am knowledgeable about spreadsheets, but that doesn’t mean you want me doing your bookkeeping.

Joel W Suffridge

Who stole our innovation?
Thanks for your editorial on the hurdles to innovation (“R&D Doesn’t Mean Innovation,” Oct. 6). I agree with you that patent trolls hinder innovation, but the cause is not the patent system, nor is the solution to eliminate it.

The patent system is necessary to sustain long-term R&D efforts. If a company spends millions of dollars developing and marketing a product, they need time to recoup their investment to stay in business as well as fund future R&D projects.

As I see it, patent trolls are the real cause of our stifled innovation, and we should work to eliminate them. One way to get rid of them might be to require that patent holders use the technology in their patent applications in real products that are released to the market. The patent-pending technology should not only be used for production, but also have sales volumes that let manufacturers at least break even, say at the end of the third year. Under such requirements, approval of the patent application would be tied to the benefits the patent offers to the economy. This solution should stop patent trolling and leave the real work to those serious about bringing innovations to society.

Eugene Kim

In the late 80s, I worked at a tool house which won a contract to build a family of dies that were to be used to fabricate heat exchangers for home gas furnaces. I traveled to the plant where the tools would be used to go over requirements. While there, I was given a plant tour, including the “Research Lab.” I was shocked to find that all of the research consisted of dismantling competitors’ furnaces to see if there were any ideas worth stealing. My boss and I had a good laugh about this company’s research.

Fast forward to late 90s with another company and now I was involved with dies to fabricate components for home air conditioners. Again a plant tour included the research lab. This company’s research consisted of studying competitors A/C units looking for ways to improve their own products.

I must conclude that either the two companies I visited were the only two dishonest HVAC firms or the whole industry does nothing more than pirate from competition. There must be a HVAC innovator out there somewhere, but I sure did not see the evidence.

Ralph L. Wirtel

When will we realize as a society that throwing money at a problem doesn’t ensure success? We need not look any further than public education to see that. Many school districts that spend the most per student are among the lowest performers.

More to your point, what I’ve seen over the past 20 years is a steadily growing myopia among decision makers both in industry and government when it comes to innovation and R&D. About two-thirds of my career has been in military-funded R&D and the other third in commercial product development. The Commercial-Off-The-Shelf revolution in government acquisition has much to do with shorter term thinking — it emphasizes evolutionary (development) advances over revolutionary (research) ones. Most government program managers would prefer to modify a commercial device or system to military purposes rather than come up with a truly new idea and product. COTS reduces development time, cost, and, most importantly these days, risk.

Yet, the commercial sector doesn’t seem to fare better. Managers seem to have mastered the art of putting the “no” in innovation. There are so many layers and gatekeepers in large organizations that out-of-the-box ideas are easily smothered. Those that aren’t smothered often get delayed for such a long time that by the time they garner support, the need for them or the market opportunity has long since passed.

One of the main points Dr. Michael Hammer made in his 1993 book, Reengineering the Corporation, still rings true today; hierarchical structures get in the way of change. Hierarchical structures inherently have a lot of activities going on that do not add value to the company’s products or services. The primary objective of a bureaucracy is self-preservation, the second is growth.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not much an individual or even a group of individuals at the working level can do aside from moving to a smaller company or starting one of their own,

Yet, many technological advances require a substantial investment in infrastructure that individuals or small companies do not command. For example, if someone comes up with a new way to make steel that uses 20% less energy, where does she or he go if the company they work for isn’t interested because the investment it requires would siphon funds from another project with substantially less risk but also fewer benefits?

Finally, I don’t necessarily agree with the “no patents” idea. People should be allowed to reap the benefits of their ideas. That is the purpose of the patent system. Yet, your point is well taken; the system gets abused by people with little or no moral conviction other than making as much money as they can while expending as little real effort as possible. One counter to the patent trolls is the use of trade secrets. This is especially effective with processes used to make generic products when the result cannot be differentiated in the final product. Yet, they can be effective in differentiable products. Consider Coca-Cola and Heinz ketchup; neither has patented their formulations (which would’ve run out decades ago) but, they have viable businesses based on trade secrets.

Christopher Perhala

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