Both McCreary and Petrick are fascinated by the opportunity to better understand the complex landscape that characterizes the digital transformation of industry. “You can’t look at one aspect and understand what’s happening,” says Petrick. “It’s technology, people and the environment in which they meet.”
Clearly, factories of tomorrow will be more autonomous than they are today, and McCreary and Petrick are seeking to help companies understand where their operations fit in the spectrum of future possibilities—and how they can best get there.
“It’s very satisfying to do research that is both interesting and useful,” adds McCreary. “And we’re finding that sweet spot.”
CAPTIVE VENTURE CAPITALIST
How does a large, multinational company tap into and leverage the creative ideas of its people when its more than 83,000 employees are spread across more than 40 countries around the globe?
If you’re BAE Systems, you tap John Kelly to build a digital platform to coordinate and encourage innovation across the organization regardless of role or geography, and to evaluate and nurture the most promising ideas. Called “Empower Innovation,” the organization Kelly today directs is equal parts crowd-sourced idea management system and internal venture capital fund. “Our mission is to engage our workforce to solve problems and to develop new capabilities,” he says.
Empower Innovation was created in large part to make more accessible the often isolated pockets of expertise common to any large organization, Kelly explains. “We often say we don’t have technology problems, we have awareness problems.”
Kelly spent ten years at the U.S. Dept. of Defense before joining BAE Systems 15 years ago, and has spent much of that entire time focused on the rapid development of complex, innovative systems. One notable initiative that came out of the company’s Empower Innovation process is the development and scale-up of mixed (augmented) and virtual reality systems that are easier and more efficient to develop and use.
The company partnered with PTC and Microsoft to develop “guided work instructions” to both bring operators up to speed quickly, and to assist them during actual assembly operations of complex battery systems. “Training time is down 40%, and assembly time is down 50%,” Kelly says of efficiencies gained using the mixed reality tools. The company also has used mixed reality in critical design reviews with clients to help them understand complex issues quickly, and full virtual reality in the design of factory-floor layouts. “We’ve saved significant time and money,” Kelly says.
Currently, BAE Systems is working to link the guided work instructions that its operators use on the floor all the way back to its CAD/CAM systems, so that when a design change is made it’s propagated all the way down the chain. Consider that as many as 5,000 individual components may be involved in one finished product’s assembly, and this task reveals itself as clearly nontrivial. “The ‘PDF on glass’ is the standard today,” Kelly adds, “but now we’re aiming to create a living, breathing link from the digital to the physical.”
Kelly also believes that the sort of information-sharing that BAE Systems is aiming to facilitate among its employees will someday soon take the shape of public, “flat-earth” access to domain expertise wherever it exists around the world. Competitive advantage will shift from large companies and academic institutions, with specialized know-how well publicized and well shared around the world, enabled by a global high-speed data fabric. “The winners will be organizations that can best understand customer needs and rapidly compose solutions.”
FROM CONCEPT TO REALITY
Graduating from college into the teeth of the oil price shock and early 1990s recession that dampened job prospects in his native Texas, Jeff N. Smith took a flyer: he moved to the Big Apple and soon was swept up in the burgeoning tech boom—first working for publications covering this exciting new frontier, then for a series of tech start-ups.
The one key constant in his early career was change itself, Smith says—a willingness to embark on
uncertain paths and to build from the ground up, often from scratch. “I’ve always been willing to digest risk in order to place a claim on the future.”
Indeed, Smith found that nursing a new business concept from idea to reality—then finding customers who could benefit from that new offering—was particularly fulfilling and satisfying. He points to a smart grid technology solution that he helped take all the way from whiteboard to deployment at hundreds of locations across four continents. “It’s really made a difference in their lives,” Smith says.