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Kansas City thrives on innovation labs

Updated: 2014-01-21T06:45:24Z

By MARK DAVIS

The Kansas City Star

A thinking cap can do only so much.

Big new ideas sometimes need a $40,000 3-D printer or a length of PVC pipe. Getting it right might require an isolation booth that blocks out radio waves, or a simple toaster oven.

All of these items and more populate innovation labs at various Kansas City area companies. They’re the sites where brainstorming meets soldering irons.

Of course, their value lies in what they produce — new products, new gadgets and even new businesses. They also build employees’ skills because some companies are opening labs to everyone on the payroll, not just the techies.

The openness is as important as the equipment.

For example, Garmin has a new ideas group and separate engineering teams for each of its product divisions, from aviation, automotive and marine to fitness and outdoor. Garmin also encourages cross talk and idea sharing, often spurred by employees’ personal use of its own products.

“We like to give any engineer the freedom to come up with something and pitch it,” said Johan Broer, a Garmin spokesman.

The biggest payoff of these innovation labs might be a better Kansas City area for everyone.

Kevin McGinnis, with Pinsight Media+ at Sprint Corp., said awareness of innovation labs and the work they do is critical to the area’s growth and emergence as a technology hub.

These venues allow locally spun ideas and innovative thinking to stay here, and they attract such ideas from afar.

“If you’ve got a good idea,” McGinnis said, “there are people here in Kansas City that you should approach. It’s happening here.”

For most businesses, spurring innovation is just good business. Here’s how three area companies tackle the task.

Barkley

Barkley, the Kansas City-based advertising agency, opened its innovation lab in June 2011. The idea was to see how emerging technologies could work for clients.

Moonshot, as it’s called, is run by Mark Logan. He had been head of the firm’s interactive marketing group, mostly doing digital work, developing websites and the like. The lab brings the real world into the equation.

“The really interesting stuff right now is happening at that intersection between the physical and digital domains,” Logan said.

For example, one project took on the task of building a mobile phone app that could tell whether Logan’s desk lamp was on.

“Proof of concept,” Logan called it.

Applied to a client, it became the Krispy Kreme Hot Light app. Downloaded to your phone, it alerts you when the nearest Krispy Kreme shop, or any you choose, is pulling fresh doughnuts from the glazing machine.

That’s Moonshot.

Recent projects still looking for a client include a smartcart that would link a shopper’s smartphone with a scanner-capable grocery cart. The prototype cart doesn’t have a built-in scanner ready to read the items as they drop in, but that’s the idea.

Logan showed off another project called Social Sample — a plywood box held together with long bolts and sporting a roughly sawed PVC pipe with a cutout along one side.

“We’re not worried about polish or presentation,” he said.

Then, Logan picked up his cellphone, visited a Facebook page and “liked” the pretend new soft drink it promoted. That allowed him to hit a vend button, and the PVC pipe spun around to deliver a free bottle of the drink.

The bigger idea at Moonshot is called rotation week. About a half-dozen or so employees come in on Monday charged with dreaming up an idea and a prototype by the weekend.

So far, about 200 of Barkley’s 300 employees have been through rotation week.

Logan calls it experiential education, getting your hands dirty in the name of understanding technology and thinking about what it can do for clients. Rotation week also emphasizes acting on ideas to get a prototype to show clients more quickly.

One rotation week team answered a charge from Barkley client Sprint.

The wireless carrier wanted a way to make more impressive presentations on the road, when its reps couldn’t wow customers at the elaborate briefing center on the Sprint campus.

Ta-da. The team came up with a system to show Sprint’s presentations on multiple mobile devices at once — any of the devices Sprint offers. Each device can display its own unique content, or multiple screens can be set up in an array for a different effect.

Logan said within a week the team created the content for a demonstration, developed software to synchronize the devices and engineered a router for the task.

Plus, Barkley retained the intellectual property rights so it can sell the now patented system to others.

Members of teams that come up with patented ideas get to add an official “inventor” designation to their business cards, and Barkley includes their names on the patent application.

Moonshot’s newest idea? To open Rotation Week to employees of Barkley’s clients. UMB Bank already has been in.

Hallmark Cards

The tools inside Hallmark Cards’ LEaP Lab are as impressive as the projects they accomplish. LEaP stands for learning, exploring and prototyping.

One room offers 3D software stations, another an extensive woodworking shop and computer-controlled laser cutting and milling equipment. Other areas hold equipment to work with fabrics, plastics, metals, electronics and more.

An array of MakerBot 3D printers — which replicate any three-dimensional shape they’re fed from a computer — are pretty much in constant use.

The big-ticket item is an Objet 3D printer, price tag about $40,000, or 15 times one of the MakerBots.

There’s ordinary stuff, too, such as the toaster oven to heat materials for casting and making molds. And screwdrivers, pliers and hammers.

“We just went to Home Depot and bought like four of everything,” said Scott Browning, manager of Hallmark’s Prototype Studio.

The key to the lab is who uses it. Browning said the LEaP Lab’s doors are open to any “Hallmarker,” as are the 14 training courses on how to use everything inside.

There are a basic orientation course and others that range from soldering and embroidery to “Arduino Electronics Prototyping” and “Multi Media & 3D Software.”

Inside the lab, employees also will find super users, such as Steve Goslin, who spend much of their time there and can solve a problem or help with an idea.

Browning said 500 employees have used the lab since it opened. On average, they’ve taken three courses each.

“We have 1,500 skills we didn’t have 2½ years ago,” Browning said.

Before the lab, employees took their ideas to Hallmark’s professionals at Browning’s Prototype Studio.

More likely, they got in line at the studio, waited to get something back and then sent in a revised idea. LEaP Lab replaces that back and forth.

Browning said the payoff was that project ideas moved through the company’s “innovation funnel” faster and less expensively. Once they reach the Prototype Studio, projects are much further along and closer to market.

One example of the LEaP Lab’s work was the North Pole Communicator Microphone that shoppers saw in Hallmark Gold Crown stores over the holidays.

Sprint

Innovation at Sprint looks beyond the wireless network that the Overland Park-based company is spending billions to upgrade nationwide.

Two Sprint labs focus on new ways to use the network, and they’re open to outsiders, though selectively.

For example, the company operates its Emerging Mobile Technology Lab in Overland Park and a similar lab at its Burlingame, Calif., center.

Here’s where entrepreneurs and businesses with new wireless product ideas can work the bugs out.

For example, Bellwether Associates in Kansas City tested a service called Edict at Sprint’s Overland Park lab.

Edict provides patients a Sprint mobile phone to interact with their physicians. For example, they can conduct personal video conferences, transfer images for diagnosis and treatment, and send data such as blood pressure readings taken at home to the doctor’s office wirelessly.

Similarly, San Francisco-based Fitbit Inc. proved out the wireless connectivity of its popular activity-tracking wristband at Sprint’s California lab.

Visits to the labs help innovators because Sprint’s network is being built by three different vendors and combines various manufacturers’ equipment. It means the technology configuration of Sprint’s wireless network in one city isn’t exactly like the the configuration in another.

The labs bring all those combinations to one place, saving new device designers a round-the-country testing trip.

Mike Haddock, manager of the Overland Park lab, said one feature the labs offer is a sort of stress test for a new wireless device.

It happens inside an isolation chamber that blocks out radio frequencies. Sprint “pipes in” its wireless signal through a cable, which allows Haddock to control and contort the signal they get.

“I can make it weak. I can make it strong. I can add degradation to it. I can add noise to it,” Haddock said. “Then, I’m going to make it worse.”

Devices that can handle those extreme conditions will leave consumers happy with both the device and Sprint’s network, Haddock said.

The work is cooperative, with Sprint and visitors benefitting.

“Sometimes, they can show us a way to use technology,” said Rhonda Atkins, technical project and program manager at Sprint’s Overland Park lab.

Late last year, Sprint started a small display center just outside its Emerging Mobile Technology Lab with a similar notion about its thousands of employees.

Currently, displays at the Concept Connections Center focus on Fitbit’s wristbands, Bellwether’s blood pressure monitor and a roughly 3-foot-tall white mystery gadget the Sprint folks weren’t ready to talk about publicly.

The idea is for Sprint employees to see the role Sprint plays with these devices and to come up with ideas of their own. Whether they work in finance, human resources or elsewhere, employees can submit ideas to a review board that evaluates what’s possible and knows what’s already in the works.

It’s a self-directed tour that starts with a video designed to inspire them to think about what wireless might do next.

Atkins called it a “Jetsons of today” vision, referring to the 1960s futuristic cartoon but without the flying cars — at least so far.

To reach Mark Davis, call 816-234-4372 or send email to mdavis@kcstar.com.

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