Answering the big question: ‘What If?’

Over the past 30 years, Plant Engineering's Product of the Year award has highlighted the innovative companies who dare to ask the tough questions.

By Bob Vavra, Content Manager, Plant Engineering November 17, 2017

If you analyzed 70 years of articles in Plant Engineering, you’d find we essentially write about three things: people, processes, and products. On the people side, we discuss training, safety, and worker development. On the process side, we look at operational strategy and how to use technology effectively.  

When it comes to products, we offer our readers the latest product developments, from the smallest sensor to the largest compressor or motor. We also offer some insight on how to more effectively use those products to achieve process goals. 

Plant Engineering’s New Products For Engineers Database now available at offers you a one-stop shop for all the latest products, sortable by product category. And every year at this time, we offer you the analog version of that digital list: the annual Product of the Year competition. 

Now in its 30th year, Product of the Year remains the most coveted new product award in the industry because the winners are selected by our qualified readers. We only allow people who buy or specify products in their manufacturing plant to cast votes, and we disqualify a fair number of votes each year from people who don’t meet that voting qualification. (I mention this both as encouragement to all of you who do vote and as a reminder to those folks who try to slip a few votes past us. We’ve been at this 30 years. Trust me—we check.) 

Product of the Year is one of my favorite issues because it’s all about continuous innovation, and that should be exciting to everyone in manufacturing. To the many companies who entered Product of the Year in 2017—we have more than 100 qualified entries—it’s an affirmation that they are always looking for new ways to improve their contribution to the manufacturing plant.  

These product innovations emerge each year from continuing conversations between product managers and plant personnel. It’s that conversation that leads to the answer to the biggest question every plant manager must face: “What If?” 

  • What if I could shave time off my production process? 
  • What if I could reduce downtime? 
  • What if my automation system showed me where there were weaknesses in my process? 
  • What if I had better insight into my plant assets? 
  • What if I knew where the leaks were in my compressed air system? 

Product of the Year’s goal is to highlight this innovation, hand out some really impressive trophies, but most of all, to answer that ‘What If?’ question. Regardless of which products our readers ultimately choose to receive the Gold, Silver and Bronze awards in each category, a review of all of these products gives plant managers a way to find the answers. 

In the day-to-day (sometimes minute-to-minute) operational mode most plants are in, it’s hard to find the time to take a breather, step back and see how things could be better. Yet that kind of evaluation is essential to improve, and continuous improvement has been at the forefront of Plant Engineering’s message to our audience for the last 70 years.  

This particular issue of Plant Engineering is a great time to stop, take a few minutes, and leaf through this issue to take a look at what manufacturing innovations await you in the coming year. These are the best new ideas in the market, from fundamental maintenance products to the latest automation innovations. Any of them can help your plant improve. All of them show the supplier community’s commitment to look for new ways to help plant operations move forward. 

Please review this year’s Product of the Year Finalists. Please evaluate these great new ideas against your own needs. And please vote. All of this helps you get better as a manufacturing operation.  

And it keeps you from having to answer the bigger question: “What if we DON’T improve?” 

Bob Vavra is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering at CFE Media.