Systems Integration

Companies Design New Devices That Make a Difference

Creativity and Risk Matter Most and How Much Genuine Usefulness Investors, Supporters Actually Achieve

It was refreshing to report and write this month's cover article, "The Long Greenfield,” but it took me a few minutes to figure out why. I realized it was because North West Redwater (NWR) Partnership's brand-new refinery near Edmonton isn't just new, but is happening on a pretty epic scale. It's not coaxing 0.25% performance improvements. It will soon process a lot of the bitumen that Alberta would otherwise send out of province and refine it at home into ultra-low-sulfur diesel and other high-value products. Big gains! Big news!

Of course, I'm aware that small, incremental improvements can add up to huge dollars. That's what thoughtful, careful process control and automation is all about. A penny saved is a penny earned. I get it.

However, a little dramatic, colorful action is valuable too. Bigger gains may be infrequent and inconsistent, but they also spark the imagination and inspire other big dreams and plans and, hopefully, actions. I think much of this desire gets lost in our predictable, overly cautious, modern environment — to the point that many crucial projects never get started at all and never achieve any gains, large or small.

Shifting gears slightly, I was in and around Detroit a couple of times earlier this year, and I was surprised that it looked better than it had in a long time — recent bankruptcy threats aside. I didn't get more than a quick look at the Motor City, but I saw just enough clean-ups and construction to feel like a revival is starting, and I don't mean the casinos.

Stick your neck out when you get a chance. Sure, you’ll likely get chopped more than once, but at least you won’t be fearful and bored to death.

Over the years, I've learned that urban blight and redevelopment unfold in waves and are characterized by two different, but simultaneous perspectives. Many folks see devastated neighborhoods, flee to the suburbs and then the exurbs, pull up the ladders and continue to live in fear — very pragmatic and justifiable, but not very courageous or newsworthy. Others see empty blocks as an opportunity for reduced rents, cheap lots and low mortgage rates, and start to build houses. community gardens and businesses — foolhardy and risky in the beginning, but definitely more epic and interesting. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I knew a general contractor, who was securing empty lots in Chicago's downtrodden Bucktown neighborhood and building all kinds of townhomes. This seemed crazy, right up until other builders joined in, and all the restaurants and art galleries opened up.

Likewise, I've covered many small and large businesses over the years, and they come in these two demographic stripes too. Most firms are excited — they're always "excited” — when their module now comes in vermillion! Or when they buy a competitor and gain market share, layoff a few hundred or thousand employees or otherwise move cash around, all without providing their customers with any new and helpful solutions or services. Yes, money is made, but awesomeness is not.

The other companies design and build successive generations of new devices that actually make a difference in the work routines of their users. One of the best recent examples is software-configurable I/O, which lands wire from I/O points in the usual common area, but then employs Ethernet and software to assign tags, rather than forcing users to trace dedicated wires throughout entire applications. This is saving users huge amounts of cable, costs, labor, confusion and headaches. Very epic indeed, and it's one of the main solutions NWR is implementing at its new refinery.

Circling back, I should qualify my earlier remarks because it's not the size of a performance gain that makes it epic. Instead, it's how much creativity and risk its inventors and supporters are willing to commit, and how much genuine usefulness they achieve.

So maybe stick your neck out when you get a chance. Sure, you'll likely get chopped more than once, but at least you won't be fearful and bored to death.