Innovation is a common term highly used in many industries today and is a term that companies use to describe what they do. It is a term that implies creativity, and the application of new inventions, and a term that implies things are moving forward in a positive direction. But do companies that claim to be innovative actually turn great ideas into reality? For the companies that are successful in doing so, what are they doing differently? How do we differentiate between companies that are truly innovative from the companies that just like to label themselves that way? How do we know if “Innovation” is a reality or just a buzzword?
Perhaps we should first define exactly what is meant by innovation. Innovation is taking a technology, an idea, or a methodology and successfully applying it in a new way. When defined this way, innovation is simply a developmental step forward that involves creating something new by reapplying what we already know.
Innovation in the mobile market
At JCA we have the unique privilege of designing electronics for the mobile heavy machinery market. It is a privilege, specifically for designers, because of the range of opportunities and the continuous need to solve new problems. The industries that use mobile equipment cover a wide variety of applications each presenting a specific number of functional needs that can be solved using interesting technology. Each solution is unique in the value it offers to the end user, so each opportunity has the potential to offer something new. For example, some applications such as tractors and excavators require the optimization of horsepower, while others such as planters and graders are driven by high precision. A more recent example is the advent of autonomous vehicles in these markets, specifically in agriculture, opening the door for the adaptation of a wide range of new technologies. So, the opportunity for innovation in these industries is abundant. However, this alone is not enough to achieve innovation and there are many companies in this industry struggling to turn great ideas into realistic solutions. So, what exactly is it that paves the path for real innovation?
In the mobile market innovation requires a few very important ingredients.
- First and foremost, there needs to be an end application with a specific set of functions that solve a problem for an end customer. This is important because if there isn’t a group of people who are interested in the result, then there is no market and the ultimate value of the innovation is very small. It is usually the OEM that best understands this need and the potential value that the functions bring to their customers.
- Secondly, there needs to be an idea or a technology that could potentially be used to achieve the needed functions and bring the desired value. If there is no existing technology, then the solution may require pure invention, but that is not usually the case.
- Finally, there needs to be a system designer that can adapt the identified technology to work in the new application and solve the defined problem at hand. This is a role that JCA system engineers often fill with our customers.
Some examples of innovation seen in the mobile heavy equipment market include:
- The use of tablets or smartphones in the heavy equipment market and tying them into various control applications. While the tablet technology existed previously, using them in this way is new and allows for the integration of apps, weather, the internet, and user mobility into the equipment. The use of tablets also changes the design path for ruggedized display terminals that have traditionally been used in these vehicles.
- The use of high accuracy GPS systems for precision applications such as seeding, planting and grading. Once again this is an example of how an existing technology has been reapplied to create new capabilities in a different market. Furthermore, with the recent public availability of the precision GPS software, incorporating GPS technology into the equipment is becoming much more cost-effective, and we can expect to see new uses of this technology emerge.
- The use of datalogging, while not a new technology, is used more and more to understand the behaviour of the machine, how it performs and when it will fail. This data can be stored or fed back wirelessly and used to drive further development and new innovations. Any machine operation can be broken down into a series of measurements and machine data. The interpretation of this data can then be used to characterise the machine.
- Autonomous technologies applied to agriculture machinery. While the development of much of the autonomous technologies has been driven by the automotive market, it is now being adapted to the AG market. Autonomous vehicles will completely change farming and the future direction of technology development in this market.
Innovation involves taking continuous strides in the direction of improvement, using existing technology and knowledge and applying it in new ways to solve problems. It is truly exciting to work in an environment where this type of innovation happens every day.
Partnerships and Teamwork
However, understanding the meaning of innovation is again only part of the challenge. Putting innovation into practice requires a dedicated effort and the people with the expertise to make it happen. For this to be effective, OEMs often need to find a suitable partner, the system designer, with whom they can codevelop with. To realize progress and to put innovation into action, OEM’s and system designers need to work together.
At the beginning of any business relationship there is always a period of getting to know each other. It is important for companies to learn how they each function and how to best communicate with each other. They need to evaluate each other and ensure that they can work together. This is a necessary step. But once this is over, and the two companies agree to work together, then it is time to put any doubts aside and focus on making progress.
This is especially true of the engineering departments in each of the companies. While costs must be kept in check and internal knowledge needs to be kept confidential, too much focus on these items as part of a project, stifles development. To realize true value in what is being developed, companies should strive to have their engineering departments work as one team and operate as true extensions of each other. In this way there is a common understanding of what the projects goals are and a shared vision of the application requirements. If management can allow and facilitate teams to work freely together, the outcome can be truly exceptional producing results that far exceed initial expectations.
The engineering partnership is the path to innovation where companies complement each other and share knowledge and capabilities. If this is bogged down with excessive quotes and proposals, and limitations are placed on the sharing of knowledge, then this will be reflected with limited results. Certainly, project structure and financial controls are critical parts of a project’s success, but these need to be set up in a way that allow rapid evolution through development and do not slow down achieving a solution that best meets the customer’s needs. The OEMs bring the vision and the end goal, but they often do not know every aspect on how to reach that goal. The system designer understands the technology and the inner workings of how to tie things together, but they usually do not fully understand the end customer, the application, or which functionality brings true value. Together, however, the OEM and the system designer can innovate and be successful.
This is JCA’s experience and we strive to formulate this type of relationship with all our customers. We enable innovators by implementing our customer’s ideas in their application and bring their vision into reality. Working in this way, innovation is a reality and ingrained into the culture of every project we work on. It depends not only on the adaptation of technology, but more importantly on the relationships we form and the way we work together.