At the end of 2012, we conducted a roundtable discussion on innovation in the rigging industry to get perspectives and insights about what is driving innovation and growth.
Wire Rope Exchange: How do you define innovation in our industry?
Tom Miller: To me innovation in the rigging industry is two-fold. We’re focused on providing our customers with safer products that also promote ease of use. The loads are getting bigger and bigger, so the rigging also gets bigger and bigger – which means more weight and more opportunity for accidents. Providing a safer way to lift these larger loads is where we are looking. Also, I think our own manufacturing practices have to be safer.
Mike Parnell: We listen to our customers, understand their challenges and work on how we can get their challenges fixed. It may be through a new product innovation, or a new design-lifting device. Ultimately, it is all about lowering risk, which can be accomplished by a more positive method for connection, a more dependable wire rope or sling system, or by better education or technical skills. Every time we get a new piece of electronic equipment, we consider: how can I use this to solve my customers’ problems. How can I ramp up their learning? How can I take away some of the potential for accidents?
Brad Benner: I think it’s important to take a holistic approach to innovation. We make it a process of our business model. Our industry has high requirements. It’s important because people’s lives are involved. If something goes wrong with a product in our industry it makes the news. A tower crane goes down in New York or something goes wrong on an offshore platform and there is a scramble drill. We can’t innovate so much that we get beyond what we know works. You have to do a lot of research to make sure that your innovation is sound and accurate so that people are safe.
Wire Rope Exchange: Brad, I want to follow-up on what you just said about not getting beyond what we know works. Often, innovation is aggressively pushing the envelope in a new direction. How do you achieve balance in minimizing risk while also pushing the envelope?
Brad Benner: It starts with leadership. Leadership has to show that we can do great things. You also have to put good people around you who know the products. And you have to instill the mindset that failure is not an option where safety is concerned.
Wire Rope Exchange: It’s insightful that as all of you were sharing your definitions of innovation, you put them in the context of challenges. And that is what innovation is about: solving the big challenges. What’s happening in the industry today that creates optimism for growth?
Tom Miller: Technological advances create optimism for growth. In my area – the St Louis market, we’ve seen a lot of upgrades and investments in alternative energy sources. There have been a lot of upgrades in coal-fired power plants. Refineries are also upgrading – and finding new ways to pull oil out of the earth.
Mike Parnell: We have a solar power client. They are booked out until 2025 doing transformer rehab and turbine units. They are getting orders from a lot of the power companies. When people are projecting 10, 12, 15 years downstream, that is a bit unusual for the U.S.
Brad Benner: There is a lot of foreign investment that is coming into the US. The Chinese are starting to build crane-manufacturing plants. Korean and European companies are setting up locations. What excites me is that Americans can be making things again and supplying the world. We certainly have the resources to do that.
Wire Rope Exchange: I want to shift our focus to things that can be transformative to the industry. How do you look ahead and assess how to adapt your business to the changes that are coming?
Brad Benner: NASA is working on a space elevator. It is going to use a cable that connects a geosynchronous orbited station in space to earth. There will be capsules that go up and down on it. They are going to do this with carbon fibers. I think there is going to be more of a synthesis between synthetic products and traditional steel products and electronics so that we move towards hybrid products that we don’t even imagine right now, but really aren’t that far off. I think this tether cable from space to earth is going to be a phenomenal accomplishment. They are actually going to have to manufacture it in space and send it down to earth. There is going to be a lot of innovation as a result of that.
Mike Parnell: You’re just planning on business death if you won’t lift your head up out of the sand long enough to look around and listen and do some research. You have to stay plugged in. Listen and learn. It’s about actively pursuing all kinds of ideas, crazy as some may be, so that if something starts to take off, it may take a turn that you or I can actually fill a need.
Tom Miller: Some of the carbon fiber and incredibly strong and durable materials that are being used on aircraft today is amazing. Things that are available today such as the carbon fiber relic with strength that eclipses steel is what is going to move us forward.
Wire Rope Exchange: Open innovation and crowd sourcing are getting a lot of attention. How do you see these concepts being applied in our industry?
Mike Parnell: This industry does not mimic the electronic world. Because the world is getting smaller, competitive perspectives drive people to be secretive – and not willing to share. The future and total existence of their organization may rest on their findings and the development of their innovations. It is only after things get adopted out in the market place and are well established that we see cross- pollination – like a product initially used in undersea lifting may now be used on a ski lift or in a deep shaft mine. Cross-pollination occurs once we have tested and proven out the technology.
Tom Miller: I would agree whole-heartedly with that. The companies that are investing in research and development in our industry want to be the ones to bring the product to market and reap the rewards.
Wire Rope Exchange: Do any of you see smaller, very innovative companies collaborating with the largest players in the industry? That is the open innovation model that Proctor and Gamble has used successfully. So, an entrepreneurial company can get more market traction by working with a large, established company.
Brad Benner: I think anyone who distributes products would agree that you try to develop partnerships with manufacturers. One of the products we distribute in North America is from a Korean company that has a 30,000-square foot R&D facility, where all they do is play with wires and wire ropes and see what happens. They have electron microscopes and computer imaging and modeling techniques – all kinds of high tech equipment just to test wires and wire rope. We try to do the same things. We have access to this information and we share it with our customers.
I would tend to disagree with the guys a little bit. I think the industry has always practiced a little bit of a crowd sourcing in an informal manner. Wire rope manufacturers buy from distributors. Distributors buy from their competitors. There is a lot of napkin design collaboration that has gone on forever. People know what each other can do and they work together to develop products.
Wire Rope Exchange: Brad, Have resources such as LinkedIn been helpful to you?
Brad Benner: I started two groups on LinkedIn: Wire Ropes and Lifting and Rigging. I tried to make it selective so that only people in our industry could be involved with it. The Wire Rope group has over 500 members and the Lifting and Rigging group has over 1600 members. There are these fantastic moments when someone like a safety director from Exxon Mobil will ask for input about the development of a lifting standard and they will get responses from every continent about their perspective and their understanding of the standards and how those apply to local requirements and industry requirements. I have learned a lot myself from these exchanges of information. I think it has made me better at what I do.
Wire Rope Exchange: Our next topic is measurement. How do each of you measure innovation performance?
Tom Miller: It is very simple for me. The success of innovation is measured in revenue. Two years ago, we partnered with another company to design a special new vertical load tester. That new tester has created many opportunities for us to differentiate Marcal Rope and Rigging . The revenue it has generated has been phenomenal.
Mike Parnell: I think a major measure of innovation performance is customers and clients telling us you have hit a home run.
Brad Benner: I agree with both Tom and Mike. To add to that, innovation performance is indicated by people being excited about what they are doing. That includes customers, suppliers and your own employees. When they are excited about what they are doing – that is a good indication that you are doing things right.
Wire Rope Exchange: It’s just about time to wrap-up our roundtable. What final thoughts or words of wisdom would you like to share with our readers?
Mike Parnell: Real innovators must be willing to fail. If you have management or leadership that really inhibits or prohibits failure of any type, the writing is on the wall that they are not going to be innovative in what they are doing. We need to be willing to fail because each failure will teach us and tell us something about where we need to go.
Brad Benner: I would say the other side of that coin is perseverance. If you allow yourself to make some mistakes you have to be willing to stick to it as well. You can’t let one failure set you back.
Tom Miller: I have to remind myself fairly regularly that its okay when something doesn’t work. Not everything is a home run. Without the failures you don’t appreciate the successes either.
Wire Rope Exchange: Thank you Tom, Mike and Brad. It was great fun engaging with you in this discussion. You’ve provided food for thought and great insights. We’ll have to do this again.
Meet our Roundtable Participants:
Brad Benner, President Alps Wire Rope. Alps Wire Rope Corporation, headquartered in Chicago, IL and established in 1968, markets a wide range of products manufactured by world-class mills from throughout the world. Alps is dedicated to providing quality products, with excellent service, to the various industries served. In 2010, Former Speaker of the House and General Chairman of American Solutions Newt Gingrich appointed Brad Benner to the Advisory Board of the Jobs and Prosperity Task Force.
Tom Miller, President of Marcal Rope & Rigging. Marcal Rope & Rigging, Inc. was established in 1970 in Alton, IL. Marcal offers a range of rigging and construction products and a variety of services including certification of lifting devices, rigging repair, rigging inspection, and others. Tom Miller serves as current President of the Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF).
Mike Parnell, President Industrial Training International. ITI provides crane and rigging training/consulting for hundreds of clients in the U.S. and around the world. Parnell is the ASME B30 Main Committee Vice-Chair, a member of five B30 Subcommittees, CIC Rigging Certification Committee Chair, a member of the Associated Wire Rope Fabricators and is a charter member of the Association of Crane & Rigging Professionals.
Karen Maples, founder of Myutiq – a firm helping companies implement repeatable innovation processes, and Melissa Hood, publisher of the Wire Rope Exchange, led the Innovation Roundtable Discussion. To find out more about Myutiq, please visit: www.myutiq.com