Once you teach a bear to dance, you’d better be prepared to dance until the bear’s ready to stop. – Unknown

There’s a lot of talk lately about innovation and its likely role in the revitalization of US manufacturing. This past June, President Obama announced the formation of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) – a collection of representatives from academia and the public & private sectors that is tasked with making recommendations to the president on just how to best rebuild the US manufacturing engine. Beyond the AMP, the true importance of US manufacturing has jumped back into our collective consciousness over the last 2 years, as we’ve seen what we’ve really given away, and what that loss is costing us.

But despite the plethora of positive columns, articles & studies – as well as the emergence of the reshoring trend – restarting and sustaining our innovation engine throughout our supply & demand chains brings with it great responsibilities.

To make my point, I’d like to share a conversation I had recently with a close personal & professional friend.

Bill runs a small, technically advanced aerospace machining business out west. His company is a family-owned business that obsesses over quality & service. Like many of their successful counterparts, that obsession drives them to constantly evaluate emerging technology advances in capital equipment and ancillary capabilities that bring top-line value to their customers.

Put bluntly, Bill & ’em know their stuff.

Late in 2011, Bill began looking to upgrade the shop’s CNC milling & machining capabilities. Among the short list of candidates he’d created from his research was a company he’d worked with in the past. As we discussed the experiences & challenges he was facing during this phase, he shared an important observation: the former vendor – a high-functioning technology builder of the upper strata – seemed to have lost something important.

Their service had eroded. To the point, according to Bill, that it nearly negated the value of the quality a premium price brought.

“What it seems like they’ve done is focus more and more on the ‘lights-out, knock-your-socks-off’ innovation and state-of-the-art technology, and let their service degrade to pay for that innovation. They don’t seem to see beyond the initial sale, and seem to have forgotten that dependability is just as important to my business – and my customers’ businesses.”

This isn’t uncommon, and that’s certainly so in manufacturing. But the innovator that had puzzled Bill so – a foreign capital equipment manufacturer known for its cutting edge products – offers a perfect example of the responsibilities we all have to our customers when we adopt a posture of innovation.

Here are 3 responsibilities that our businesses and our country must understand before we pursue advancing our technology & innovation superiority:

  1. Service – Innovative, cutting edge technology requires strong support to be applied effectively. Innovation inherently requires more service, since it often presents processes or results that haven’t been seen before. For better or worse, there are fewer familiar standards in highly advanced manufacturing innovation, particularly when it breaks. We must be ready for these inevitabilities, nationally and corporately.
  2. Training – Service takes people. We all know that. Or we should. But innovation in high-tech sectors are rarely plug-and-play for end users. In innovation, training is two-fold – training our own people for service and operation, and doing the same for the customer. For many manufacturers, customer training or support is seen as high-margin revenue stream. I get that. But what happens when those costs or substandard training drive customers to a competitor? Will those margins be worth it then? From the smallest shops to our national commitment, education and training are paramount to a successful innovation strategy.
  3. Supply Chain – Any business strategy – and especially the support of innovative technology – demands dependable parts & materials supply. Whether it’s consumables that support the technology or parts or service in support of emergency demand maintenance events, inventories are extremely critical around innovation.

In consumer products, innovation often focuses on usability and simplicity – think phones and tablets and such, making extraordinary tasks extraordinarily easy. But in the industries where high-tolerance, discrete parts are designed and manufactured, high levels of competence and expertise will always be required to meet need. There’s just too much at stake.

I mean, you COULD perform brain surgery with a butter knife, but …

And know this – innovation is expensive. And not for the feint of heart. It requires resolve, and an understanding that you’d better dance until the bear – your customer – says the song is over.

We must all include commitments to service, training and supply chain health to ensure the innovations our products bring to markets are valued, bought and trusted. And any committee or group or special commission had better understand that. We need a strong industrial base to support, feed and protect innovation. That doesn’t just happen.

Otherwise, that bear will bite us – by exposing us to substantial competitive threats. Maybe not in the near term or at the point of sale, but by eroding confidence and loyalty down the road.