China is hoping to change from the world's factory into a global center for innovation - a transformation the creators of InnoLab are banking on.
Beginning in June, the Mackinac Island, Mich.-based Institute for Lean Innovation began collaborating with Shanghai-based Mena Maxson China - which launched InnoLab - to create a series of training and consulting services aimed at improving research and development practices to China.
``The kind of response that I got in China is far more than I could have expected,'' said institute founder Bart Huthwaite of a June visit to Shanghai. ``[China's] engineers are very well-educated in the technical arena, but they have no systematic training in innovation. Our plan is to bring an innovation methodology to R&D centers and to also bring that kind of thinking to the schools.''
Huthwaite has detailed a series of steps toward better, more systematic innovation and product development. He has turned his ideas into two books, a consulting service, a college course and what he has dubbed the Innovation Cube - with six sides representing six steps to innovation.
``That little box gives you the dimensions of what needs to be considered as a manager of engineering,'' said Li Wei, an engineering manager with Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., who took part in the InnoLab seminar in Shanghai. ``It emphasizes innovation, not only from a technical point of view but also considering [a company's] image - that's something that engineering managers can lose sight of.''
Many plastics firms that first viewed China largely as a manufacturing base are starting to move more and more design and R&D responsibilities to the country, Li said. It was this trend that led Mena Maxson to seek out Huthwaite, said InnoLab's executive director, Thomas Tang.
``As per our research, there have been about 700 R&D centers set up in the past two years by multinationals and they are recruiting a lot of talent from local universities,'' Tang said. ``They are finding a gap in their expectations and what local hires can provide.''
Similar services exist around the world but Huthwaite's program - with a U.S.-based client list that includes General Electric Co., 3M Co. and Johnson & Johnson - seemed the most promising option, Tang said.
``We found a lot of consulting or training companies - the problem was they offered programs that are good for learning, but hard to implement,'' he said. ``This is something you want to implement from the ground up, from new hires to senior executives.''
Huthwaite came up with the idea 25 years ago to fill a similar gap at U.S.-based companies. Working at an assembly machine manufacturing firm in Detroit, he saw companies arrive with poorly conceived new products.
``People would come to us with a big bag of money and a problem, but the parts themselves were not designed for automatic assembly,'' Huthwaite said. ``So we started educating our customers.''
His latest book on that topic, The Rules of Innovation, recently has been translated into Chinese. Meanwhile, Mena Maxson is setting up a certification program for Chinese engineers.