Seeds with teeth!

Senior Tech Editor Jim Montague muses that maybe it's time to think up some new incentive programs for individuals and teams to make more and better innovations in process control applications.

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Jim Montague, Executive EditorBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

 

THERE'S NEVER enough time, money or resources to get anything done. This is a common song these days, mainly because it’s true. Though justified, however, these limitations also can evolve into crippling excuses that destroy real opportunities. Short-sighted corporations and managers can always find a million reasons not to invest in unconventional projects or new ideas because they don’t have any, but the real tragedy only happens when plant-floor engineers get stuck in this inertia, too. “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you,” says German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche.

So maybe we’re asking the unhelpful questions. We usually ask how much do we need to accomplish a project? Perhaps it’s possible to ask what can we do with what we have, or how little money or time does it take to still accomplish something useful. This may sound like disingenuous semantics, or like management-speak for “doing more with less,” or that I’m implying that proces control engineers aren’t thrifty. Sorry for that, but I’m not asking because I have a bonus or stock price depending on it.

So, how low can you go? Multiplying micro-credit and micro-lending organizations are helping people—mostly women—in developing countries set up small businesses with as little as $25.00. These tiny amounts of seed money allow borrowers to buy supplies and equipment and offer goods and services needed and in demand in borrowers’ communities. Pure economics.

For example, Grameen Bank, Opportunity International, ACCION International, Kiva, and similar organizations connect small investors (often individual people themselves) with those who literally just need a few bucks to build little businesses and generate independent livelihoods. Far from a handout, these groups carefully interview new borrowers, closely monitor their  progress, and report repayment rates above 95%.

Grameen and its founder Muhammed Yunus recently won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Even some traditional banks are starting to wake up to the economic potential of the working poor they’ve always said were bad credit risks and so ignored or abused in recent centuries.    

Of course, even the simplest control and automation technologies cost a lot more than setting up a fruit stand or a handtool-based furniture business, right? However, commercial off-the-shelf components and Ethernet devices are increasingly inexpensive, and a lot of software and education is pretty much free.
So where can you apply some of these micro-borrowers’ values? Can you do anything useful with next to nothing?

I always hear about how much engineers love to tinker with solutions, and test new methods in a corner of their facilities before implementing them more widely. But, frankly, I haven’t run across too many specific examples lately. Maybe most engineers are as shy as they are busy, if they’re not sitting on their hands or working in companies too fearful to change. Check out Grameen and Kiva’s websites, see what real improvement is, and maybe transform someone’s life for the price of a lunch for two. 

Back in your own application or plant, cheat for a little time to improve it. Prepare your mind, maybe on your commute. Write down potentially useful improvement ideas. Ask colleagues for their input. These preparations will make you ready to act faster and need fewer resources when an opportunity shows up. I know many engineers already do this, but most plant-floor improvements are operational, while it’s business-wide improvements that many manufacturers need.

Look to the micro-borrowers. They’re the true entrepreneurs—not the megalithic corporations that can’t get out of their own way, use ubiquitous advertising to cover for shoddy products and lousy service, and/or buyout and strangle innovative competitors with useful solutions that big companies are no longer willing to deliver. Rationalizations aside, many corporations are simply thieves. Small competitors turn on the light on them. Watch the roaches run!   

So don’t wait around for others to get moving. You have to be first, even if the cost of building momentum is frustrating, thankless and professionally hazardous. It’s always been this way. Change, like accelerating around a curve in high-school physics, takes more energy. As Gandhi says, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

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