Are We Open to Change?

Are We Open to Change?

 

This post will be a little different than normal as it does not address a specific technical issue but rather the industry’s “state of mind.” It was prompted by a discussion with a friend of mine in the semiconductor industry who is working with clients to change from silicon-based power devices to a new technology, i.e. — wide-bandgap devices.

My friend was complaining to me that the engineers that he works with are very focused on specific design issues when evaluating new technologies, and that he had a hard time convincing them to look at the broader picture.

My first reaction was, ‘But if you use these devices (properly) these specific issues will automatically become irrelevant.’

My friend answered, “I know, but try to convince them of that.”

As I thought about this conversation it reminded me of many facts about the motion industry. I have always contended that this is one of the most conservative industries out there, and new innovations take a long time to be widely embraced. One of the obvious reasons for this is that we have plants to run and we cannot afford any downtime. So when we are looking for solutions we will go with a safe, no-risk approach to ensure that our production goals will be met with as little downtime as possible. But at the same time we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to do things certainly better — and possibly cheaper — when we do not embrace technical innovation.

Going the safe route involves little risk; you will encounter fewer problems and everyone is familiar with the solution. As a result we need little new training, the startup period will be short and our bosses will be happy. But at the same time we will keep struggling with the same old problems and shortcomings of our “solutions” that we have learned to live with, and we will never find a better way that raises us above our competition and we will simply be a “me-too” company.

And while the me-too attitude can provide for a decent living, traditionally it is the successful innovators who will be handsomely rewarded for their risk taking.

I am not suggesting that we collectively drop everything we have been doing and always strive to try something new; that is not a prudent solution either. But we must strike a strategic balance by which R&D funding is allocated for innovation in parallel with the established comfort factor solutions. And yet, our industry’s culture often opposes even the consideration of an alternative.

I know of companies that are going to outside contractors to evaluate new technologies because the in-house staff claims to know everything and sticks with a given technology solution without considering any alternatives. I must credit management for recognizing the danger and trying to find technical alternatives that, if successful, can then be seamlessly transitioned into an environment currently hostile to change.

Innovation involves learning, trial and error, failure, recovery and success, i.e. — a lot of work that can be avoided by sticking with what we know. Why would I want to create additional work for myself? First, we do not want to become dinosaurs and work towards our own extinction, because sooner or later there will be an innovation that will put our job, or even our organization, at risk. Second, if we successfully master new technology, we may find that after the transition our job has not only become easier, but also more interesting since becoming exposed to new horizons.

Management bears equal responsibility when seeking to embrace new, beneficial technologies. We must acknowledge that there will be challenges that must be mastered that will take time and resources, and we must learn to focus on solutions and outcome and not always look to assign blame for failure — which is bound to happen. Only then can we adapt new advances in technology successfully and leap ahead of our competitors.

I often hear that it is difficult to attract new graduates into the motion industry, which is considered stale and old fashioned; everyone wants to design apps and bask in glory. The reality is that many design challenges and innovations in the motion industry are state-of- the-art — from simulation tools to processors and communications — but the image that our industry conveys is stale and not very exciting. When attending technical conferences I notice an increase in the overall greyness of the hair and the lack of diversity. We need to better educate new graduates about the true nature of the technology and innovation that our industry needs, and attract young talent. Or, we will not have the necessary right and bright resources in the future to keep moving on in the motion industry.

About Author

George Holling

With over 70 publications and 9 U.S. patents on sensorless and efficient motor controls and low-cost power circuits to his credit, George Holling (PI) is an in-demand consultant to many major U.S. and International corporations for motors and drives. At present he holds significant influence in two companies — as technical director of Electric Drivetrain Technologies (2011– present) Moab, UT and as CTO of Rocky Mountain Technologies (2001– present), Basin, MT. Holling is a graduate of the University of Aachen, earning his B.S. (1974), M.S. (1978) and Ph.D. degrees there, while picking up his MBA here at the University of Wisconsin. His career has spanned both the commercial and academic arenas, the latter including stops at (Dean, Computer Science & Engineering) Utah Valley University, 2001 – 2003; and (Adjunct Professor), Western Michigan University, 1997 – 2002. From the commercial side, apart from his current positions, Holling has served as Project Engineer and Product Line Manager, UNICO; Franksville, WI (1978-1981); Project Engineer, General Electric, Medical Products Division, Milwaukee, WI (1981-1983; Manager R&D, Pacific Scientific/Honeywell Motor Products, Rockford, IL (1983-1985); Vice President of Engineering, Regdon Solenoid, Brookfield, IL (1988-1990); President, Advanced Motor Controls, Sun Prairie, WI (1990 – 1999); and Vice President of Engineering, Cordin Company, Salt Lake City, UT (1999 – 2000). Holling has also spearheaded projects for the development of high-efficiency motors and drives up to 400 kW, and has successfully negotiated licensing agreements with U.S., Chinese, Japanese and Indian customers for the licensing of motor and drive technology.

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