Our readers tend to see doom-and-gloom when it comes to this country’s ability to innovate. Neither government, academia, nor their companies seem to do it well. Let’s hope they’re being too pessimistic.
Innovation is a goner
Innovation is valuable, as your editorial points out (Another 80 years of innovation, Sept.8). It sets us above our competitors, both domestic and foreign. But to be totally frank, innovation involves risk and funding. In today’s economy, few managers are willing to add risk or spend money not needed for their core product lines.
Innovation has suffered for three main reasons:
1.) Engineers are increasingly forced by company and government mandates to spend more time training and complying with edicts on subjects that add no value to company products. The MBAs’ solution is to just tell engineers they must put in the extra time, but humans have only so much energy and useless activities drain energy that could otherwise be spent to innovate. The seemingly endless training on topics such as diversity, collaboration, TQM, six sigma, and meaningless performance reviews also tend to be morale destroyers.
2.) Tinkering is discouraged if not downright forbidden. At my company (and at many others, I suspect) R&D is the only salaried department required to account for its time every week on a project-by-project basis.
3.) There are whole departments created just to oversee adherence to metrics. They add no value but are constantly prodding for better performance so workers don’t do anything else. In addition, they set up several databases to “manage” and they constantly want updates, another a nonvalue-adding activity that saps energy.
Gus Gaynor is are all too correct when he says the government has no idea what innovation is or how to get it. For example, I always find it sadly amusing when Congress (or the President) mandates new fuel-efficiency standards, assuming they will just magically happen and cars will remain unchanged in price, performance, size, and safety. So, I wonder, if they can mandate an increase to 35 mpg, why stop there? Go for 60 or even 100 mpg. Why not 1,000? mpg.
Gaynor’s comments about younger engineers not wanting to talk shop at lunch is enlightening as well. I would like to think that most engineers get into the field because they love making things work, coming up with new ideas, and turning them into reality. Now I question whether that’s true of our younger engineers. Are they engineers because a high-school guidance counselor recommended engineering or maybe just because they think they can make a good living doing it?
Bottom line: Passion brings about innovation, and sometimes from the most unexpected sources.
In your editorial on innovation, Mr. Gaynor talks about the advantages of bullpens for engineers. Mr. Gaynor is wrong. In fact, as much as I hate cubicles, I hate bullpens even more. (Can we think of more ways to demean engineers?)
As an introvert, and I think many engineers fall into this category, my best creative, innovative, and clever moments are almost always private, when my thoughts can run free without the intrusions of coworkers’ conversations. Currently, I work in a carpeted “library” of cubicles, where you can hear a pin drop or the random conversations from any of the other 20 people in the office. Yelling across the room? There’s no need; in fact you can’t even have privacy in your conversations if you wanted it. and bullpens would make it much worse.
Maybe what we need are floor-to-ceiling glass rooms with glass doors. Add a window for communication when you need it and there you have it: Privacy for the engineer and the transparency to let management know how you spend your time.
Innovation grows best in an environment conducive to the individual’s personality and style of work, an environment designed to get the best out of an individual. To expect it without paying attention to the needs of your people is shortsighted at best, ignorance at worst.
Let’s compromise on renewables
Many folks on the renewable bandwagon will bash any opinions that clash with theirs (“The economics of renewable energy,” Aug. 20). But the issue of intermittence needs to be resolved if total costs are to go down. Few people understand that the cost of a power plant sitting idle, running at 50%, and running at 90% are nearly the same. Doubling the power output of a plant does not double the total cost of running the plant.
I do believe renewables will help meet some of our power demands. But it is also a changing market and we need to adapt to it. Adaptation means “greenies” must take off the rose-colored glasses and some of the “gray-hairs” must take off their blinders.
As technologies becomes more effective and fossil fuels become more costly, the renewable field may become cost effective. And drawing battle lines will do more damage than good. Your editorial provides a realistic perspective.
A new way to ask questions
All too often we ask “What is wrong?” rather than “What is right?” But it is negative and makes people defensive. Orr seems to have it right in his column (“Forget everything you’ve learned about problem solving,” Sept. 8) when he talks about a new way to ask questions and a much-more positive and productive way of approaching and solving problems.
While nonlethal weapons are an admirable concept (“Taking Out the Enemy… Without Hurting Them… … Too Much,” Sept. 10), the battlefield has no rules, particularly when dealing with enemies who think nothing of suicide attacks. So these weapons are designed for urban pacification against unarmed citizens, not a pitched battle.
Sadly, the only way to ‘fight’ is to destroy your opponent. Anything less, and you have to fight the war again.
Although primarily designed for urban crowd control, nonlethal weapons have military applications as well. Defeating an enemy does not always require killing, let alone “killing them all.”
But consider a jungle war. The Active Denial System could “flush” the enemy out into the open. Even in a pitched firefight, the ability to confuse and disorient a wide swath of enemy troops yields an advantage. So they might be considered more “supplemental” weapons/resources, not primary ones. But they would help in more quickly gaining superiority on the field, saving lives on both sides.
Please note correction to ad copy on page 61 of September 10, 2009 issue. Correct ad header is “A New Strength in Brushless Motors.”