The endless journey of innovation
While it is not true that I knew Johannes Gutenberg personally, I have been in this business long enough to remember blocks of lead letters being used for typesetting. Our “content management system” was a clipboard and the “design tools” were a pair of scissors and some hot wax. “Photoshop” was a small darkroom at the back of the press room. I’m not even an editor anymore; I’m a content manager. (That’s pronounced both ways: CON-tent manager and con-TENT manager.)
If you take time to look back at your time on the job, you probably can recall some similar primitive tools that were replaced by new ideas that were going to make your job better. And as those innovative ideas continue to multiply at an ever-increasing pace, it’s good to reflect on how we innovate, and how we use our innovative tools to further innovate.
We have to start with a basic principle: All we’ve managed to do is improve on the six basic simple machines that were first catalogued during the Renaissance: the lever, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. But that’s the nature of innovation—take what you have and make it work better.
The means of propulsion have changed; so have the devices designed to set that propulsion in motion. Manual labor has become more automatic. The materials, both natural and man-made, have become more sophisticated, stronger, more durable.
We are better at every aspect of our work day. Our workers are more engaged with not just their task but also the impact that work has on the company as a whole. They are safer, and that allows them to be more productive. The tools we give them have evolved from chalkboard scribbling to clipboard notations to bulletin board postings to iPad notifications.
In that evolution, I feel we sometimes forget that it wasn’t always this easy. Innovation has not always been achieved as simply as by pressing a button. It has been trial and many, many errors. Innovation is far more about overcoming failure than it is about achieving success. It is never achieved, either. We never conclude something is as good as it could ever be. We strive for better, always.
In that effort to get better, we have slowly, steadily improved what we make. A car is still a car, but only the most ardent collector would prefer a ’57 T-Bird to a modern vehicle. The safety, fuel efficiency, and entertainment features have turned the family car into a globally connected environment all its own.
We added seat belts and airbags, smarter engines, and smarter dashboards. Wi-Fi has replaced hi-fi as the communications connection. Our cars last longer, and they can take us places we never dreamed we could go while behind the wheel.
Take away all of that innovation, and the car’s primary function still is to get us where we want to go. And as it turns out, that’s the primary goal of innovation, too.
We’ve been reflecting on innovation this month at CFE Media as we mark two years as a company. Plant Engineering is, of course, much older. In fact, we mark 65 years as a publication this year. The light distances we’ve traveled since 1947 are vast. The distances CFE Media has come since 2010 also are substantial. In the process of building this organization, we are rebuilding the way information is delivered to you.
From our new Content Stream tool that will connect supplier, end users, and information in an exciting new platform to Apps For Engineers, which provides a one-stop shop for the latest mobile applications, we’re delivering content through new channels that didn’t exist six years ago, let alone 65 years ago. Imagine Gutenberg’s reaction; his movable type was created in 1439.
This month’s special cover gives you an idea of how far the printing business has come. The thicker stock, dynamic colors, and special foil are all possible because printers weren’t content with Gutenberg’s original idea of moveable type. They found better ways to print, and better materials on which to print. The inks they used have gone from oil-based to soy-based. I joke sometimes that my primary goal each month is for the magazine to come out right-side up, and in English. I’ve seen the printing process up close for almost 40 years, and I can tell you the magic that makes printing possible is far from that simple.
We manufacture ideas, and deliver them as words and pictures. Our end users have the opportunity to turn those innovative ideas into action. We still deliver the same kinds of ideas each issue, all designed to help you do your job better. Today, your choices to receive that data are vast—printed magazines, Website blogs, interactive Webcasts, or a calculator uploaded to your smartphone.
So that’s what we’ve thought of over the past two years. We’re not done innovating for our readers, and we’re not done delivering the innovations in manufacturing to you. You are our partner in that innovation, and we always want to hear more about how we can get better at this. After two years, or 65, or 573 years, it’s the quest for innovation that keeps us moving forward.