"Let me ask you something,” a resin company representative said to me during the reception prior to this year's SPE Automotive Innovation Awards gala. “We've had parts that make it to the finalists' list, but what can we do to move higher?”
The answer, I warned him, is not simple.
Obviously, the best place to start in getting a top award in the annual event begins with having an innovative part. However, every year I see plenty of innovation out there in plants and on cars that are never submitted.
Before this year's K2013, I swung by the automotive awards for SPE Central Europe. I asked an engineer from one company why the part he'd worked on – which was a finalist in its division there – hadn't been nominated for the Automotive Innovation Award here.
He said that he didn't think their part would qualify, since it had just gone into production in Europe.
But this year's finalists covered global production, from North America, South America, Europe, Asia and — for the first time — even a Turkish truck part. There have been winners for parts never put into production in the U.S.
That's one of the interesting things about the Automotive Innovation Awards, the wide range of parts, processes and regions represented among the finalists each year.
The Blue Ribbon Panel doing the judging is another.
Unlike other awards I've seen, finalists for the automotive prize must prove their worth not just to a panel of their peers, but to a wide-ranging panel made up of engineers, educators and members of the media (like me) who have never run a press or designed a part, but talk to a lot of people who have.
Don't be surprised if one of the veteran industry professionals on the judging panel asks you to compare it to a part that was produced 20 or 25 years ago. There is some vast institutional knowledge represented in that group, as well as those of us trying to wrap our heads around the intricacies of in-line compounding.
No one specific point of view wins out over the course of all the awards. I've never batted a thousand on picking the winners in every category, but I can always see the value in those parts that do win.
I've been part of that panel for more than 10 years and have seen winning parts that became standard operating practice in the auto industry, and I've seen promising breakthroughs that never quite fulfilled that promise.
SPE members sort through the entries every year to narrow down the list of submitted parts to a group of finalists that will present to the judges. The judging takes place over the course of a day, with representatives brought in to present their case for parts in each division. The judges pick the winner from that category and then move on to the next one.
And anyone who has been a part of the judging knows that the judging falls under a very strict time limit. You've got five minutes to present your part, followed by two minutes of Q&A.
Go over your allotted time and the time keeper will let you know, first with written cards telling you it's time to stop, then announcing that time is up, thank you very much, so please collect your parts and you can answer that one last question on your way out the door.
Which brings up the first tip about the judging process — practice. When you see 25-30 presentations over the course of one day, you know which presenters have rehearsed and which haven't.
Know your key points, hit them and move on. You can always go back with more details during Q&A, or note that there is more information in the packet. More than once, I've seen presentations that hit the first two bullet points out of five and have to rush over the final three in the closing moments. And unfortunately sometimes the best info in there is one of those final three points, which is then lost in the shuffle.
Tip two: Bring samples, if you can. If you're going to tell us about how much lighter your part is than something else — and it's small enough to carry or pass around — bring a “before” and “after” sample. It's one thing to read about something being 25 percent lighter, but it's another to hold both parts in your hands and know it for certain.
Show us a video if it's about processing. As I mentioned, some of the judges are not engineers. Seeing something like the process of inserting fuel system components in the fuel tank by opening the mold during production is a lot easier to understand when you see it.
Tip three: Make sure your presentation works well and that it's compatible with the system being used during judging. Check which way the event host prefers to get its files (email in advance? Flash drive?) and use that. Have a backup if you can. Make sure you've got enough printed copies of the presentation to hand out to everyone. No one wants to be the company that holds up the judging process because you have to reformat your presentation.
Obviously, technical issues beyond your control happen. This year's judging, for instance, included a power outage that set everyone back for 20 minutes.
Tip four: Those comments up there on the variety of people on the panel? Please keep that in mind. The automotive and the plastics world may be overwhelming male, but there are women out there as well – both in the industry and on the panel. It's kind of frustrating as one of a half-dozen women in the room to hear the presentation start by thanking the “gentlemen” on the jury. Especially when you're hearing it three or four times in a row.
But say you're not in the auto industry, but still would like to get some recognition for a breakthrough part of process. Where do you start then?
Again, begin by getting involved and actually submitting your part. Nearly every SPE division I've seen with an awards competition is ready and willing to put your part into competition. Officials from each group know that there are interesting parts that never make it into judging, simply because no one at the companies is interested in taking part or because they feel they do not have the time to take part. (Some of these same people will then grumble in the background that the winning parts simply weren't as good as theirs, and the judges should have known better.)
As the saying goes, you can't win if you don't enter.
Many of these awards competitions involve written submission forms, rather than in-person presentations. Some of the same rules apply, though, whether you're writing about your part or talking about it. Get to the highlights quickly up front. The judges have a lot to look at, and if your highlight sentence is four sentences into a tightly-packed, single-spaced paragraph, they may not notice it.
Make sure that the things that make your part award-worthy are easy to understand, even by people outside your industry. Sure you may be judged by other blow molders or thermoformers, but those judges may be working with different end customers, and not be familiar with the hurdles you had to overcome with yours.
Consider asking a friend or family member outside the company to read over the description, and see if it makes sense to them, within reason. Obviously, a highly technical breakthrough will require more details, but the first few sentences highlighting the process will benefit from a clear overview.
Don't make the mistake of assuming that everyone reading about your part will be in the business. For the IDSA/Plastics News Design Award, presented during NPE every three years, the judges are members of the Industrial Designers Society of America, and they are looking at parts from a different perspective than a molder would. A couple of clear sentences on what makes the part award-worthy goes a long way.
Practice makes perfect
Those may all seem like minor points in a very long process, but decisions on each category are made very quickly. A strong presentation can carry a lot of weight — much as an attorney wants to have a strong closing argument in a court case because it's the last thing a jury will hear.
And if all that sounds like advice you may never need for a competition you may never personally take part in, just remember — it's not that different from a pitch to a potential customer, is it? If you're at a trade show, and a customer comes by your booth, you want to make a quick and lasting impression. If you're invited to a technology day at an OEM, you want to be sure you're prepared for those few moments that a purchasing exec stops by. Never hurts to get some extra practice on the SPE judges.
Besides, think how happy your OEM customer will be to get a nice prize to take home at next year's Innovation Awards as a result of your work.
Miel is a Detroit-based Plastics News staff reporter. This column is adapted from one she wrote for the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division.