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Some leaders believe "thinking outside of the box" is an important tool for economic growth that helps to create new products, processes and services. While Milwaukee's history is steeped in innovation, today the state ranks low in the generation of new ideas and products.Project Milwaukee: Innovation - How Do We Compete? examines the status of innovation here, its value and the factors that are laying the groundwork for the city's future success. We'll talk with entrepreneurs, investors, educators and others about Milwaukee's assets and challenges. And, we'll learn about some of the big ideas coming out of Milwaukee.

Project Milwaukee: Innovation Key to Rockwell's 100+ Year Evolution

Rockwell Automation
Control data within Rockwell's Advanced Technology lab
Credit Joshua Matson, flickr
The iconic Allen-Bradley Clock Tower at Rockwell Automation.

Generations of Milwaukeeans have appreciated the iconic clock that sits atop Rockwell Automation on the city's south side. It was a gift to the community from one of the original owners of what was the Allen-Bradley Company.

What people may be less familiar with is what has gone on inside the firm that specializes in factory automation. It started 100-some years ago, when Lynde Bradley developed a motor controller into a company that has sold 400,000 discrete products. Today, the company engineers connected systems.

“Innovation is what makes us a company with longevity. We are 112 years old. Innovation has always been part of our culture going all the way to Mr. Bradley being a prolific innovator himself," says chief technology officer Sujeet Chand.

He says Rockwell is recognized by Forbes and Thompson-Reuters as one of the most innovative companies in the country and world.

Chand says a simple measure of this is patents. He holds 40 patents; his colleaguem Director of Advanced Technology Dave Vasko, has 45, and they're just two of hundreds of engineers Rockwell employs.

The two take WUWM's Marge Pitrof to a couple of research labs to show how the company fosters innovation. The first stop is a room with boxes rolling along a conveyer.

Senior Principle Engineer David Brandt has been devising ways to measure the energy it uses. "Kind of like your meter at home, you can then sort of look around the plant at the devices that at automating and say, where it my energy being used. And you might then concentrate on reducing it,” he says.

“Even if you can reduce energy consumption by says 10 percent, just within the U.S. that’s roughly $6B in savings,” according to Chand.

Chand says Rockwell is responding to the needs of its customers. For Brandt, he says he’s just having fun. “I’m constantly thinking about how new things can work, probably spend several hours a day reading different news feeds on particular topics that are related,” he says.

Across the hall, software engineer Thong Nguien says he’s gotten ideas from game systems and even movies. “We saw the movie Minority Report, where Tom Cruise waves his hands and manipulates this data base. It’s really cool,” Nguien says. He is using the concept and the type of camera inside an Xbox to mark his co-worker’s body with red x’s.  His challenge is to find ways to make factory workers more efficient and safe.

“So you see, as Dave waves, it’s locked onto all his joints from the head to toes. So we can identify where he is and where his hands are,” Nguien says. If the system would detect a worker’s hands about to be crushed, it would deactivate.

Of all the innovation encouraged at Rockwell, how much succeeds and how much fails? “Within Advanced Technology, we typically won’t do a project unless it has a 25 percent or less change of success," Vasko says. “ I would not put 300 people on a project that has a 25 percent chance, but I would put one person on a project for six months that has a 25 percent chance. Try it out, see if you can get it to work, see where the real problem is, and then go from there."

Vasko says ‘going from there’ often means convening groups of workers. He and Chand say Rockwell has found that collaboration produces solutions.

“We have innovation workshops, which are sessions where we bring together people from diverse backgrounds. So you may have a technologist, a marketing person, a sales person; so we get together and brainstorm around customers’ problems that we believe we need innovative solutions,” Chand says.

So strong communication skills are a must for workers. Rockwell is also redesigning office space so it’s easier for employees to share ideas and learn from each other, and the company also collaborates with other firms, when they find a common benefit.

Chand describes manufacturing as an extremely competitive industry – a race, so players need every advantage.

How then is Milwaukee as a home base? “I think very quickly we compare ourselves to Silicon Valley. We are clearly not Silicon Valley. But we believe Milwaukee is a great place to be an innovative company. We have a great set of universities here in Milwaukee, and we have a very strong supportive business community as well, and Madison is not that far away. One of the shortcomings here is a lack of skilled labor, and we could use more technology start-up companies,” Chand says.

“I think everyone has an innovator in them, but people have a tendency only to think at one level. So we need to have people broaden what they are thinking and think way outside the box, but then concentrate and refine that idea,” Vasko says.

Rockwell recognizes and rewards those who succeed. While the manufacturing giant has transformed itself over the generations, what has not changed is the need to continuously innovate, or be brushed aside by competitors.

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