Got a wish list? You’ve come to the right place

Lifecycle management brings in new products, though the basic wants and needs and desires remain the same.

By Bob Vavra, CFE Media November 18, 2013

The generational gap is something I write a great deal about, and it’s a continuing issue for manufacturing. The ease with which the younger engineers have comfort with the technology and the visual readings available on most systems today is offset by their relative lack of experience. The more mature manufacturing professionals (did you like how I avoided the use of “old” there?) grew up with clipboards and pencils and have evolved to the new data explosion on the plant floor, but it all must feel a tad intimidating at times.

What has changed is the level of products available to help engineers on the plant floor. When Plant Engineering conducted its first Product of the Year recognition 26 years ago, it was a very different world. Today, because of our advancements in database management and searchable products, Product of the Year is like an for new products. When we began 26 years ago, the first Product of the Year entries were like the Sears Wish Book for new manufacturing products.

Ah, the Sears Wish Book. (Cue nostalgic music.) Every October, the Wish Book would arrive in the mail—a thick slab of paper wrapped in a slice of brown paper, heralding the start of the Christmas shopping season and trumpeting the arrival of all the cool new toys—or at least new versions of the old ones.

For me, it was the electric football game. As a kid, I would be drawn to what the new electric football game would look like that year—new stadiums, new uniforms for the players, same old stupid felt football that never seemed to stay on the player base. It didn’t matter. I wanted the new game.

It also didn’t matter that the previous year’s game had been similarly examined, sought, and pleaded for and was found waiting, neatly wrapped under the tree. It was then opened, played with for a few days, shoved under the bed to collect dust, and ultimately turned to the garbage heap by June. And the whole process would begin again when the next Wish Book arrived.

Today, we refer to this concept as “lifecycle management.”

As we begin the process of celebrating this year’s great new innovations in manufacturing, it might be useful to remember that the root of “productivity” is “product.” That can mean both what we are manufacturing and the tools we use to manufacture. We are more productive today because we have more productive machines and information on our plant floor. It is this constant reach for improvement that we celebrate in this year’s edition of Product of the Year.

We know you don’t need all 105 products tomorrow. That’s why I like the concept of the Sears Wish Book. This edition should stay on your desk throughout the year. It’s a great resource to identify and understand how well product managers have been listening to their customers all year long. What drives new products in manufacturing, as in most fields, is constant feedback from the customers—and that would be you.

This issue begins each year with a lot of plant managers, engineers, and line workers asking a simple question: “Can you make a product that does this?” Most of the time, it’s a variation on an existing product. We seldom see whole new product categories created out of thin air. The latest example of this was the tablet industry, which grew from non-existent to pervasive in five years. Now there are apps for your tablet on your plant floor—and last year, we added an Apps for Engineers category to Product of the Year.

The speed of change reflects the speed with which we are asked to improve today. In our evolving world, with new uses for old technology and greater need for data management and visibility, we see new ideas popping up each year. And yet we still must do the basics—light the plant, keep it a safe and comfortable place to work, and maintain the plant’s equipment. You’ve got to safely deliver electricity, compress the air, and monitor the operation. And unlike the little boy who had the luxury of shoving an electric football game under the bed, you also must justify the cost of these new products.

The Sears Wish Book is a relic of a simpler time, but new products are the continuing effort to make life simpler. There are times when we’d all like to climb into the Wayback Machine (I’m not going to explain all the cultural references—that’s what Google is for. Look it up.), but mostly we find ourselves moving forward, looking to the future.

That future begins today with the introduction of the 2013 Product of the Year finalists. I hope you find what you’ve been wishing for.