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NIST: Creating Jobs with Innovation

Image: NIST Under Secretary and Director Patrick Gallagher tours Omega Plastics

Guest blog post by Patrick Gallagher, Under Secretary  of Commerce for Standards and Technology and Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology

We’ve been hearing a lot about manufacturing, especially advanced manufacturing, these days. Things like U.S. manufacturing :

  • Is critical to innovation since it’s responsible for most of our private sector research and development;
  • Is increasingly about sophisticated computer-driven, highly productive worksites requiring skilled workers; and
  • Is a growing source of good jobs.

What we don’t hear about as often are specific cases where U.S. manufacturers are using new technologies to diversify their markets, improve their products, and create or retain jobs. I was fortunate today to visit one such company, Omega Plastics Inc., located in Clinton Township, MI, about an hour outside Detroit.

The event was part of a “Best Practice Tour” sponsored by the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC), an affiliate of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).

Omega Plastics employs about 45 people and makes injection-molded  plastic products to order.  For many years, they served one business sector, the auto industry. They decided that the best way to grow their business was to diversify. With help from MMTC, they did some strategic planning, lots of research, and committed the resources to transform their production facility.

Today 65 percent of the company’s product portfolio is in medical devices and consumer goods, 10-15 percent is in consumer packaging, 8 percent in security and safety products with about 12-15 percent remaining in the automotive sector. And they are selling these products globally.

In an Internet-enabled, innovation-driven economy, any company anywhere can find global markets with the right products. The key is embracing innovation and the change that comes with it.

Innovation guru and author Rowan Gibson travels the world telling businesses what he’s learned from studying companies like Omega Plastics. He says that the most successful companies innovate and create new successful businesses or products by viewing their world through one or more of the following “lenses:”

  • Challenging orthodoxies (challenging conventional wisdom);
  • Harnessing trends (understanding the change happening around you to create value);
  • Leveraging resources (stretching core competencies and assets into new opportunities);
  • Understanding unvoiced, unmet customer needs (the innovation holy grail, discovering needs that even the customer is not yet aware of).

The take-away message for manufacturers, and any organization looking to survive and compete, is that innovation doesn’t just happen. You have to look for it.

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Innovation isn't enough, we need solutions - now.

Innovation is fine, but it has become mostly incremental. If we really want to save our economy we need to solve our major problems/challenges with economically-viable solutions. These include clean energy, agriculture, water shortages, education, urban living (attainable) and even making charity more efficient.