If you work as a design engineer, you may think that innovation just goes with the territory. You better come up with new ideas – or else.
But the fact is some engineering organizations are better than others when it comes to turning good ideas into useful products. Over the past couple of years, Parker Hannifin has transformed its product development process to increase its efficiency.
It's not that Parker has ever had a shortage of innovative products over its storied history. But by 2005, the company had grown to more than 110 divisions and more than 3,200 product lines, creating lots of cracks for good ideas to fall through. "Sometimes you would hear people here say 'If Parker only knew what Parker knows, we'd be dangerous,'" jokes Craig Maxwell, the company's corporate technology vice president and chief technology officer.
You don't hear that anymore though. Today, Parker knows what it knows thanks to changes to its engineering culture and adoption of a formalized process that determines which ideas will be developed as products. Maxwell gave a presentation on the process, which Parker calls "Winovation," during a recent media day at the company's corporate headquarters. Maxwell described the process as a well-balanced mixture of creativity and discipline.
With thousands of design engineers working at Parker, the creativity part may seem like a given. And Maxwell says giving engineers some initial freedom to explore ideas is a key part of Winovation. But it takes discipline to screen those ideas and decide which ones should get development resources. "This is not engineers gone wild," Maxwell says.
Parker imposes discipline by looking at its technologies the way venture capitalists do, according to Maxwell. As part of Winovation, for example, Parker adopted a stage-gate system with what Maxwell describes as "very strict rules" separating each stage. Short review meetings in the company's divisions – between managers and engineers – decide which ideas will ultimately become commercial products and what work needs to be done to bring ideas to the next stage.
Web-based technology helps too. Parker created an internal Wed-based repository for all of its engineering ideas and pre-commercial projects. Maxwell showed a sample screen during his presentation, and the screen provides a graphical representation of stage-gate status, a description of the technology and an e-mail link to the team leader, as well as tabbed sections for reports, discussions, and related documents. The system aggregates all the information its engineering managers and business execs need to make decisions about which products will likely be winners from customer service and profitability standpoints.
Maxwell says Winovation helped the company create more winning products, and do so faster than in the past. But the biggest benefit isn't about creating new part numbers or extending existing lines of products. Instead, it's helped the company come up with technologies that draw on ideas from different divisions.
As an example of this kind of "convergence," Maxwell cites the company's Smart Syringe system, which that marries the company's expertise in precision motion control in a patented auto-sampler for drug discovery and chemical screening applications.
And Maxwell predicted Winovation will continue to yield even more breakthrough products. "You ain't seen nothing yet,” he says.
Copies of Maxwell's Winovation presentation are available.