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Manufacturing Innovation in Digital Workspaces

Manufacturing Innovation in Digital Workspaces

Yahoo’s ban on working from home has unleashed a media furor. Teleworking is being defended with research that shows that productivity does not suffer when people work offsite—it increases. And there are cost savings to workers and employers too!

The brouhaha over on-site vs. off-site productivity is obscuring Marissa Meyer’s other reason for bringing people back to the office: innovation. We know it’s the price of admission in the new economy. Encounters in the lunchroom, hallway, or kaizen sometimes do spark new ideas that grow into great advances. But does getting people off the couch and back to the office solve the innovation problem? 

Let’s be realistic, today’s teams are global. The gemba—where the work happens—is not confined to one specific workplace where can people interact. Team members may work two miles or 2,000 miles apart. Time zones are hours out of sync. Now the gemba is the cloud.
(Read how open cloud technology is driving innovation)

To leverage virtual connections and foster innovation, we need some tools for global real-time collaboration. Manufacturing has led the pack when it comes to exploiting electronic networking opportunities. Long ago engineers were sending CAD designs to the shop electronically and manufacturing engineers and technicians were converting them to CAM code to guide metalcutting machines.

People from both groups worked together, developing new ideas while troubleshooting the inconsistencies of the early software. Where successful teamwork evolved, besides manufacturing instructions coming to the plant, problems and ideas came back from the plant to engineering and manufacturing planning, creating innovative continuous improvement loops. Companies that got an early start in erasing the miles between people have a competitive advantage today. Employees—and customers and suppliers—are working together in virtual spaces and networks, supercharging the collaboration landscape. File sharing and social networking features appearing in standard office software suites can be deployed in the cloud or within a company’s secure IT system. Using business versions of Facebook, Twitter, Skype, GoogleDocs, and WikiPedia might have seemed silly a few years ago, but organizations are now reaping benefits from these social intranets.

Massive online collaboration to a practical end is not somewhere in the future. Local-Motors is an open-source online manufacturing community of 30,000 car designers, fabricators, engineers and enthusiasts. Members design and build their own ultra-customized cars in the “Forge,” using community-created standardized components, a growing design library, and imagination. Each project is strengthened by thought-provoking and helpful discussions by members. To give physical shape to what is still only information, Local-Motors provides small shop facilities that include engineers, tools, and equipment for manufacturing and assembly. Members build cars one at a time.

One collaboration with many variations is the Rally Fighter, a street legal, on-road and off-road sport vehicle. Several of these cars have been built and raced in tough conditions, including the Baja 1000. At the Parker 425 in Arizona, the Rally Fighter even survived an end-over-end flip and kept on going. You’re going to want to watch this car in its natural environment.

Domino’s Pizza has challenged the Local-Motors community to “revolutionize the pizza delivery experience.” So far, a Slovenian designer’s overall concept has been selected, and an underlying platform has been developed by a global team. The current challenge is to create the delivery vehicle’s interior. (Check out some of the designs)

It surprises me that Yahoo hasn’t already developed similar cloud-based innovation spaces. It seems to be neglecting the head start that the now antique and cumbersome Yahoo Groups should give them. If Yahoo leveraged its technology assets and the ingenuity of employees, regardless of where they are located, it ought to be able to solve its own collaboration problem. With that solution as a base, versions for customers with the same needs would make Yahoo a formidable competitor.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.