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Innovation Is Not Out of Reach For the Small Manufacturer

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Here are three ways small manufacturers are pushing the envelope without spending millions.

In a world that is changing at an increasingly rapid pace, staying at the cutting edge of technology is the only way for businesses to survive. The pandemic did little to slow innovation. According to a report by the Global Innovation Index, in 2020, international patent filings reached a new all-time high, and venture capital deals grew by 5.8%. 

Innovation is as vital in the manufacturing world as in any other industry, perhaps more so. The pandemic underscored the need for disruption and new ways of thinking about supply chains and the production of goods. Without innovative practices, the old guard of manufacturers will be left behind by those who find agile solutions to the unexpected problems that inevitably arise. 

For smaller businesses, innovation sometimes feels like a giant dollar sign, threatening to eat into already tight profit margins. However, small and mid-size enterprises typically rely on innovation to fuel growth against larger, more established competitors. Luckily, small manufacturing plants can reconcile the need to use cutting-edge practices and a bare-bones budget with strategies that are––well––innovative. 

Here are three ways manufacturers are using innovation without a massive R&D department:

3D Printing

Developed in the 1980s, 3D printing has gained traction since the late 2000s, as the technology became both easier to use and less costly. Today, any organization can purchase a commercial-grade printer for less than $1,000.     

It might be tempting to dismiss 3D printing as a gimmick, or only for hobbyists to create models or unique art, but 3D printing is a powerful tool for manufacturers looking to innovate. Perhaps the most obvious advantage is the ability to rapidly replace parts on the line. Using the proper fibers, a broken gasket can be mended in hours instead of weeks, saving thousands of dollars in lost production time. 

Creating new parts isn’t the only advantage of 3D printing. Using this technology, savvy manufacturers can create value adds for their clients. Things like realistic packaging mockups, custom pieces, and rapid prototypes are all attractive to customers of every size. 

And speaking of prototypes––3D printers can be used by engineers to test ideas and improve processes overnight. These kinds of innovations can cut costs, speed up production times and be a big differentiator for smaller operations. 

Robotics

Often associated with sci-fi movies or futuristic cartoons, robots have been an integral part of the manufacturing process for almost 50 years. Using robots can help speed processes and improve quality control, but a custom system can cost upwards of $150,000. That’s a huge upfront investment for some organizations. 

The good news is, robotics companies are innovating in the same way that other industries are, and robotics technology is now within reach without the $100k plus price tag through rental or leasing programs. 

Renting robotics allows companies to take on a larger production volume than they typically would, and has helped fill temporary labor shortage gaps in the past year. Taking on a robot temporarily also allows companies to try out innovative strategies without taking a huge financial risk. 

Operations Excellence Software

As Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock so eloquently stated, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Effective innovation relies on having good data and good analysis of that information. 

We’re living in the information age, and access to numbers is available to any manufacturing company that wants it. Operations excellence (OE) software can be easily implemented to give key insights into the inner workings of a production line. An efficient software solution will report output and efficiency updates, find capacity gaps, highlight maintenance issues, and pinpoint line disruptions due to poor practices. 

More data gives organizations the chance to make educated decisions about what innovations are likely to pay off, and which are not worth the time it would take to research and implement them. 

The great thing about innovation is that it builds on itself. Implementing one or more of these simple strategies will help small and mid-sized manufacturers identify solutions to problems they haven’t even realized exist yet. Solving inefficiencies one at a time, through smart innovation, flexible businesses will be able to carve out their disruptive niche.

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