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Productivity Perspectives

Kevin Parker

Kevin Parker, editorial director of Processing magazine, has been writing about process industry, automation and information-technology markets for more than 20 years.

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Breakthrough product award winners demonstrate the 'absorption' needed to excel

November 28, 2012
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About the 1st of December Processing magazine will announce the winners of its annual Breakthrough Products awards. It is the first time this editor has had the pleasure of working on them.   

What was striking after reviewing both the submissions and the winners was how many of the equipment and instrumentation solutions presented came out of companies headquartered in the U.S. manufacturing heartlands, or in a few cases, the European manufacturing heartlands. These companies tend to be midsized, i.e., having annual revenues of less than $1 billion.  And, as a number of them proudly pointed out, have been supplying the process industries for many, many decades. A few have heritages that go back to the 19th century.

These suppliers are invariably very engineering focused. They are constantly called upon to supply their solutions in novel configurations and settings, while keeping pace with a host of emerging automation, computing and software developments.

This editor first walked into an engineering department, seeking employment as a technical writer, in the early 1980s. He was happy to reside there for nearly ten years. It was a maker of heat-treat equipment, and also very much a mid-sized engineering and manufacturing company. But, having been lately discharged from the U.S. Army Infantry, what overwhelmed our editor at first exposure was that it was the first time he’d been in an environment outside academia where, without apology, there were people who were almost completely absorbed in their work.

It’s that kind of absorption that has kept the winners of the Breakthrough Product awards on point year after year, from the post-World War II boom era when nearly half of the world’s productive capacity resided in the U.S.; through inflations and recessions; years when it was thought Japan was near to dominating the U.S. economy; the fall of the Iron Curtain and economic globalization; and most recently the financial crises culminating in the Great Recession of 2008. 

“Innovation” has the last several years become an over-used word, but it is a tricky word too. Most innovation is incremental, and is more about attention to detail than it is about having a big idea. Confusion in the courts covering intellectual property and a broken patent system are testimony enough to this fact. But the point is that it’s these incremental advances that move the world forward in our efforts to house, clothe and feed a world of seven billion people.

Of course, none of this is really unique to engineering. Examples abound in editorial, business, the arts, government and even in the carefully constrained worlds of the military and industrial production of anonymous individuals who voluntarily and creatively absorb themselves in the details of what may seem to many others a mundane matter. It’s in the mastery of those details that the active mind becomes absorbed. And it’s probably no coincidence that this human capacity for specialization is so much to the common benefit.

But, come December 1st, we’ll focus on the winners of the 2012 Breakthrough Product awards. Their perseverance, ingenuity and absorption will deserve the recognition.