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Mar 28, 201812:45 PMMaking Madison

with Buckley Brinkman

Field trip to a digital leader

(page 1 of 2)

I’ve been a change catalyst my whole career, turning around businesses in multiple industries. Bringing companies back from the edge of death creates unique challenges in both financial and cultural management as you seek to maximize cash flows and build strong teams. I’ve been modestly successful and that success reinforces past routines and tends to lock in historical approaches.

If we were still working in last decade’s environment, I could coast on my abilities. Instead, technology and exponential change are forcing me to up my game. If I only rely on my historical skills, I will quickly become obsolete. The same is true for everyone in this economy.

It’s especially true in the manufacturing ecosystem. Additive manufacturing, automation, and connected devices will alter the way we make things in the future — and force all of us to retool our skills and approaches. That technology is quickly trending to the place where it will be possible for anyone to become a manufacturer from anywhere in the world — or above it (think the International Space Station). New capabilities transcend and transform markets. Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb all transformed their markets. Other visionaries are going after yours.

All of this was driven home by a recent field trip to Midwest Prototyping (MWP) in Blue Mounds. Steve Grundahl and his crew run the ultimate additive manufacturing service bureau. At its core, the operation pushes the frontier on numerous additive-manufacturing technologies. Beyond that, the organization operates with an intense focus on anticipating and meeting customers’ needs. This passion drives the organization down paths no one could anticipate through a structured planning process. It’s a terrific place!

I was struggling to find a way to describe what makes Midwest Prototyping special. Throughout the course of business, it’s built multiple virtuous circles — reinforcing processes —– encompassing people, customers, and technology. It also makes aggressive investments in both new and old technology. Oh, and its customer portfolio is deep and wide across many dimensions: small and large, additive and traditional, prototype and production, and local and worldwide. Midwest Prototyping is a terrific example, but tough to write about.

Then I read Jacques Bughin’s and Tanguy Catlin’s article in the Harvard Business Review, “What Successful Digital Transformations Have in Common.” They outlined six key elements. As I applied them to Midwest Prototyping, suddenly writing became much easier. Let me show you.

  1. They obsess about turbulence on the horizon. MWP leads the charge on additive manufacturing, yet it’s constantly exploring what’s next. It wants to make the best better and works hard to make that happen. It aligns itself with multiple additive manufacturing leaders to watch what it’s doing. It also engages with emerging companies to scan the horizon. When neither one of these sources cover its customers’ needs, MWP invents its own approaches, creating an MWP brand of turbulence.
  2. Understand all risks, not only those from startups. MWP participates across the market continuum — traditional, cutting-edge, and startup. New approaches to manufacturing processes and service delivery don’t frighten this crew. Several years ago, its exploration found emerging software that promised integration between order fulfillment, tracking, and production. It piloted the software and now that investment of time and treasure, plus some significant development pains, built a system that puts it far ahead of all its competition in serving its customers and maximizing its efficiencies.
  3. Deliver a dual offensive: core and diversification. MWP’s intense focus on its customers’ needs causes it to follow the most efficient and effective path to meet those needs, no matter where it leads. Sure, the team constantly drives the frontier on new technology, but it also equally aggressively adapts and pushes traditional manufacturing techniques. MWP finds context for its cutting edge and traditional approaches through its constant, worldwide engagement with diverse markets. This context provides the confidence to stride into uncertainty without hesitation.
  4. Fix leadership skills first. Steve distributes leadership throughout the company. Everyone knows the customers and willingly pushes the frontier, finding new ways to keep them happy. All of this energy creates a culture of constant learning for everyone involved. The engagement, energy, and capability put MWP in position to literally teach the world, holding sessions for suppliers’ technicians from various continents.
  5. Prioritize demand-centered business play. MWP absolutely zeroes in on market changes by pursuing its customers’ demands. It goes out of its way to help companies succeed — even helping clients with their own additive manufacturing installations that pull business away from MWP. Ironically, this activity actually strengthens its business in areas where specialized capabilities are most critical, as those same customers replace lost business with new business that doesn’t fit their new equipment. This experience and interaction provide deep knowledge of which technologies are gaining traction and how they’re being used.
  6. Prioritize demand-centered business play. It’s hard for me to imagine a company more deeply or broadly engaged with business technology. Steve and his team tirelessly follow the frontiers with their time and treasure. They invest in people as well as technology because many of the new business limitations result from a shortage of human imagination. Steve’s support creates a safe environment for people to learn and experiment. MWP is an example for all of us.

(Continued)

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About This Blog

Buckley Brinkman is executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity and writes about the manufacturing sector in Greater Madison and throughout Wisconsin. He has a breadth of experience in helping companies drive growth, world-class competitiveness, and performance excellence, and has led efforts to save dozens of operations in the U.S. by finding new ways for them to compete. A Wisconsin native, Brinkman holds a business degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

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