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SME Speaks: Cross-Industry Collaboration is Key to Innovation

Debbie Holton
Director of Events and Industry Strategy
Society of Manufacturing Engineers
Member Since 2005
 Debbie Holton

Maybe you’ve heard the theory that people who live together for a long time start to look alike. The same is true when benchmarking competitors in our same marketspace, or worse yet, simply looking inward at our own operations. The smaller the circle of investigation and curiosity, the less likely true innovation will happen.    

In fact, innovation is rarely a brand new idea, but an aggregate of several other ideas or a new application of old ideas. By looking outside our own sphere, we maximize the exposure to potential new ways of doing things.

What do hay loaders, Wal-Mart, land surveying, train motors, and CAT scans have to do with collaboration? These are all instances where manufacturers searched outside their own industry for innovative ideas that could be incorporated into their own production—and found solutions.

At Boeing, engineers charged with finding innovative ideas to improve aircraft assembly were looking for ways to lift heavy parts and components—specifically seats—from the factory floor into the aircraft. They looked at "machines" like ski lifts and Ferris wheels, all with their manufacturing operations in mind. While driving through rural Washington, they saw hay loaders—essentially a diagonal conveyor that loads hay bales into barn hay lofts. Then, they asked, "What if?"

Further investigation revealed this was a solution that could work. Eventually, the engineers found a farm equipment supplier to manufacture the loaders with a few tweaks and implemented the new process on the aircraft assembly line. Their innovative thinking transformed what was previously a 12-hour, labor-intensive process of loading seats onto the aircraft into an efficient, two-hour operation.

Wal-Mart has been a visible proponent of RFID technology for retail applications for many years now. Although its initial vision of a fully RFID-enabled supply chain hasn’t yet materialized, it was instrumental in advancing the use and application of RFID technology. Now, through industry cross-pollination and collaboration, this technology is being utilized successfully in manufacturing. aerospace, defense, and pharmaceutical, and other manufacturers are expanding the applications of RFID for production operations.

Although asset tracking and logistics are a natural application, manufacturers have moved beyond that use to include visual work instructions that can be transmitted to the workstation based upon the part being handled at that time, and locating expensive tooling and fixtures quickly. Even entire component designs and part genealogy are being stored directly on a piece via the RFID tag.

Active and passive RFID tags have advanced in capabilities and decreased in power needs. They can now measure temperature, vibration, and impact while keeping a record of it, and can be powered by that same motion or temperature change. In wind energy, RFID tags are used for health monitoring of wind turbine blades, and can signal potential stresses and problems. For medical, RFID is essential in monitoring the location of certain implements and devices. Surgical patients are now scanned prior to closing to ensure they are clear of tools like retractors or clamps. To reduce FOD (foreign object damage), aircraft are scanned the same way to ensure no tools are left behind, potentially causing serious issues.

So what about those surveyors at the side of the road—what could they possibly have to do with manufacturing? In the past, as aircraft grew and manufacturing became more precise, measurement accuracy was increasingly important. Large aerospace components needed better solutions. There were tabletop measures, but that wasn’t effective for large pieces. Larger components and subassemblies made measurement more complex, so manufacturing looked to surveying instruments—theodolites.

In the early days, it wasn’t about using the X, Y and Z-axes, but water lines—a dimension from the ground up through the tail and then through the aircraft. This technique was also used to determine measurements to build jigs and tooling.

By integrating laser technology and sensors into the theodolite concept, large-scale metrology has evolved into laser trackers, laser radar, and GPS. These new technologies enable an unlimited amount of tracking sensors for accurate, robust, and scalable measurement systems. And, GPS itself is another technology—developed for satellite navigation—that has found manufacturing application through collaboration.

Heralded for their speed and efficiency, many European trains don’t run on wheels, they are instead driven by electromagnets. The new CVN-21 Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers will use electromagnetic motors—derived from European trains for the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). The Navy will be using this efficient electromagnet technology for a smoother, higher-energy launch for the aircraft. Previously launched with steam energy from the carrier’s nuclear reactor, the electromagnets will provide easier maintenance, better diagnostics, and improved performance.

Computerized tomography, or CT, was developed to provide better diagnostic information for patients. By virtually "slicing" through the body, doctors are provided with pinpoint information to aid in their diagnosis and treatment. The same CT technology found in hospitals is now being used for NDE (nondestructive evaluation) on parts and components.

CT is especially useful for "sandwich" materials like composites that could include: composite skin, honeycomb core, adhesives, exotic materials, and metallics—all in the same piece. Each material requires its own NDE technique, but sandwiched together, there wasn’t one technology that could effectively test the combined materials. The "slices" of data allow focused analysis on targeted areas.

More common on the R&D side, testing with CT is more expensive and time intensive than traditional techniques, but delivers robust data with tremendous accuracy. After analysis, the information is taken back to the manufacturing area to determine what processes must be adjusted to eliminate the defects found through CT testing.

Cross-industry collaboration works because even though there are many differences in companies serving separate industry sectors, there are synergies and strengths that can be leveraged. By examining technologies and applications in other settings, we remove some of our traditional biases and limitations. We see possibilities we can’t see in our own operations, looking at the same processes day after day. Beyond innovation for product development, problem solving is another area where cross-industry collaboration can be valuable.

As for ongoing collaboration ideas, here’s a few:

Aerospace manufacturers have worked with composites technology and advanced materials for decades—what can they contribute to the automotive industry’s need for greater fuel economy and lighter vehicles? What can wind energy manufacturers learn from aerospace in areas like aerodynamics and the use of composite materials?

Automotive manufacturers have developed flexible automation for repeatability, rate purposes, and model changes—what can military aircraft manufacturers learn from this process in their quest to increase rate, improve quality, and affordability?

Medical device, aerospace, and energy manufacturers all produce components in titanium and various alloys. What can additive manufacturing techniques bring to these industries, especially in direct digital manufacturing?

Mfg4—Manufacturing 4 the Future, May 10-12 in Hartford, CT, is an event designed for crossover. Four industries—aerospace, defense (and arms), medical, and energy—are coming together to employ systems thinking to share innovation and ideas. This event will provide a forum to collaborate and solve shared producibility challenges.

Designed by a team of leading manufacturers including Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, and GE Energy, the Mfg4 event bridges the divide between diverse industries. The result is a one-of-a-kind gathering poised at the crossroads of manufacturing.

Business leaders will see technologies, processes, materials, and applications used in one industry that may solve challenges in their own operation. The possibilities are as limitless as the combinations. Cross-industry collaboration is leveraging and aggregating knowledge for greater benefit producibility, and that’s what SME’s mission is all about. For more information on Mfg4, please visit ME




A special thanks to SME members Parker Sykes, Rolls Royce (retired) and Nick Bullen, FSME, president and CEO, Smart Blades, Inc.; and Tim Shinbara, Jr., manufacturing engineer, Northrop Grumman Corp., for their contributions to the development of this article.


SME Leadership Series


Entirely interactive from start to finish, the SME Leadership Series integrates the latest leadership and management tools all individuals can use in both their professional and personal life. Who should attend? Open to SME members and nonmembers, the SME Leadership Series will benefit anyone who is in a role or preparing to take on a role where his/her leadership style and communication skills directly impacts organizational and personal success. This event is also of value to anyone responsible for putting together a business plan and/or is interested in enabling his/her business to stay ahead of the competition. The upcoming Leadership Series dates and locations are: April 20-21, Charleston, SC; Sept 21-22, Syracuse, NY; and Oct 19-20, Long Beach, CA. In March, a new dual-track format was kicked off in St. Louis. This particular Leadership Series was held in partnership with the Heart of America Leadership Conference, and was geared toward past attendees and those who want to fine-tune their current leadership skills. The second dual-track format will take place in Long Beach, CA. Anyone interested in attending can register at


Getting Manufacturing Knowledge
Just Became Easier—Introducing eBooks!


SME is your leading source for manufacturing knowledge. The Society is now making it even easier for you to get the manufacturing knowledge you need. The Manufacturing Knowledge Resource is your 24/7 online definitive manufacturing resource center available when you want it, where you want it. SME’s turned its library green! You can now purchase all SME published books as eBooks. Don’t need the entire book? No problem—you can also purchase individual chapters from SME-published books. Visit to read about the exciting product launches SME has for you throughout 2012.


Two Annual Conference Tours Scheduled


Two interactive local tours will be offered at the 2012 SME Annual Conference, June 3-5, in Cleveland: NASA Glenn Research Center and Lincoln Electric. In partnership with US industry, universities, and other government institutions, The NASA Glenn Research Center develops critical systems technologies and capabilities that address national priorities. Its world-class research, technology, and capability development efforts are keys to advancing space exploration of the solar system and beyond, while maintaining global leadership in aeronautics. During the tour of Lincoln Electric’s Machine Division, attendees will see the general process of its unique piecework, as well as the manufacturing and assembly process of the company’s welding machines. A brief history of the Lincoln Electric Welding School, and a look into a few machine research and development areas will also be included. Conference details are available at

This article was first published in the April 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF.

Published Date : 4/1/2012

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