Some of your editorial staff just returned from three days at Houston and the 41st Turbomachinery Symposium. It really was fun to see the contrast between the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago and the more academic gatherings in Houston. Both shows are stunning tours de force in their respective fields.
The IMTS, with 1900 exhibitors, numbs the senses with its sheer breadth and depth of industrial achievement. If you want to see the kit for making something, chances are it's there, usually with several competitors to compare. IMTS also leaves you with a great feeling about the energy and vitality of manufacturing, particularly US manufacturing. For me, it’s a fix I can always use.
The Turbomachinery and Pump Symposia deal with greater depth in the nuts and bolts of a smaller, but similarly important areas of equipment and operations. As one might expect from a great university like Texas A&M, detailed teaching, discovery, and sharing of information are the order of the week. About 320 vendors added interest and expertise to the discussions and provided participants with hands-on opportunities to review developments and vendor resources in their fields.
A new term entered my vocabulary while I participated in some of the pump and turbine discussions. The group was talking about “Technological Diversity.” My first reaction was that it was a misguided application of the sociological concept of diversity. I assumed the idea was that if we could include, say, electronics in what had been an all steam or hydraulic device, we were automatically broadening its value, regardless of the impact on service.
I was reminded of the electronic igniter on my new water heater. It may be more diverse and a bit greener than the old pilot light, but now I don’t have hot water when the electrical power goes out, which it often does in our neighborhood. This kind of diversity, it turns out, is a poor substitute for hot water.
My understanding needed a tweak, though. What the group was talking about is the kind of cross-pollination of ideas that happens when electronics people look at fluid problems and chemical engineers join the discussion of mechanical maintenance issues. The resulting discussions are fascinating, and some useful answers emerge immediately from the new questions that are asked. It amounts to asking for answers from people who live outside the box.
With Google's help, I found a good paper on the subject: "R&D Alliances and Firm Performance: The Impact of Technological Diversity and Alliance Organization on Innovation" by Rachelle C. Sampson, University of Maryland. (http://www.rhsmith.umd.edu/faculty/rsampson/papers/AMJ.pdf) It turns out that organizations that encourage this kind of diverse interaction demonstrate improved problem solving and idea generation. Oh yeah, and revenue goes up.
It was a good couple of weeks. Over 100,000 people saw a whole lot of new solutions to their needs, and one old dog learned a new trick. Let's do it again next year!