An innovation network is a web of people, institutions, or companies outside of a firm that helps it solve problems or come up with new ideas. Recently, a group of academic and business leaders gathered in the Mack Center of the Wharton School of Business, Philadelphia, to explore strategies for today's business environment. Their discovery: Innovation networks allow companies to efficiently channel a loosely organized team of diverse outside thinkers. What's more, these outsiders brought new ideas to the organization in ways that were better, faster, and more cost effective than in-house-only efforts.

For those of us plying our trade in the motion system design business, innovation networks used to be easy. We joined an engineering society or “mentored up” with a senior worker. Unfortunately those days are gone. Now it's you and me stressing for time, struggling to evaluate all the technologies, and cramming to push out the next design. If only we had a big ol' frosty mug of innovation network, life would be good.

Since we don't have a magic pitcher, we'll do the next best thing. Let's introduce the “innovation network” of motion systems work — you, your distributor, and a systems integrator. Recently, the Power Transmission Distributors Association (PTDA) held their annual Motion Control Technical Conference. Leaders from across the U.S. and Canada gathered to explore new trends in motion controls. Speakers from groups as diverse as Siemens, Omron, and IMS Research shared their thoughts about the future. One presentation really hit on the importance of innovation networks.

Bob Lowe, executive director of the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA), presented The Solution Triangle: Customer, Systems Integrator, and Distributor. Based on research, Lowe believes that systems integrators and distributors offer synergistic sets of expertise, competencies that dig a deeper well of knowledge at the customer level. Whether you are an end user, OEM, or special machine builder, this provides an ironclad competitive edge.

Now let us examine the control systems integrator/distributor network. Distributors grew from the pre-mechatronics parts business, whether bearings, hydraulics, gears, or electric motors. Nobody sold “motion automation” in the old days; it hadn't been invented yet. Today, knowledge-based distributors pack heavy heat, with expertise in product features, applications, training, and value as ammunition.

Control systems integrators first appeared on the scene in the 1980s. The combination of the programmable controller revolution and the “right sizing” trend in business spawned their creation. Today, their work is assisting companies with motion and other automation-related projects.

Systems integrators bring skills in project management and definition. Clear boundaries allow for finely-tuned measurements of success. This sounds simple, but the road to perdition is littered with careers of engineers whose designs didn't quite do things as fast and efficiently as management expected. Add the systems integrator's inherent understanding of functional specifications, documentation, start-up scheduling, and project management, and the benefits of adding them to the team become clear.

When you involve a knowledge-based distributor and a savvy systems integrator, particularly one who is CSIA-certified, you have created a true innovation network. But how does one build this network? Fortunately, forward-thinking distributors and control systems integrators are already doing the heavy lifting. In fact, CSIA and PTDA have facilitated show-and-tell sessions to jumpstart the work between member companies. If you are patient, eventually they'll come to you. However, actively building an innovation network is a competitive advantage. In today's economic environment, waiting for competitive advantage to come your way may be the swine flu of business; it probably won't kill you, but it could make you awfully sick.

Be impatient. On your distributor's next visit, ask if they have a relationship with a systems integrator. Who do they trust and why? How do they work together? How can you start a three-way discussion? Even if there are no projects on the immediate horizon, start building your own innovation network today.

AUTHOR BOX

Frank Hurtte consults at River Heights Consulting, Davenport, Iowa, specialists in knowledge-based distribution. He can be reached at frank@riverheightsconsulting.com.