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Adopting innovation as a winning philosophy: An Arena Customer Spotlight

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spotlightAt Arena, we are lucky to have an interesting and knowledgeable customer base—ranging from high-tech electronics, clean technology and medical device startups, to established automotive and industrial manufacturers. Our customers have made unique contributions to the manufacturing landscape, and we’d like to highlight them—so we’re launching the Arena Customer Spotlight series. We hope this series will spark a conversation about today’s manufacturing challenges and successes, and reveal best practices for staying competitive.

Interview with Mobius Photonics—an innovative scientific and industrial laser producer

The first customer we’d like to highlight is Mobius Photonics—a short-pulse, fiber-based laser company based in Mountain View, CA. Mobius is a small company, with fewer than 20 employees, yet it’s been able to scale by strategically using its resources. Since its launch in 2005, Mobius has survived a recession, a period of rapid growth and a direct hit on its following the Japanese tsunami.

Earlier this year, Mobius developed a new prototype laser source named “Rainbow.”  Rainbow’s unique design employs a novel way of using optical fiber to generate key visible wavelengths for super-resolution microscopy applications. The system is intended to allow scientists to image biological samples quickly, using florescent markers of choice.  To see how the company is navigating this exciting time, and to discuss how an open-minded and innovative culture has contributed to the company’s success, we talked with Red Byer, co-founder and vice president of operations at Mobius Photonics. Below is a summary of our conversation.

Alyssa: How has Mobius benefited from embracing innovation?

Red: At Mobius, we believe innovation transcends the product design process and extends to all levels of company operations. Any way a company can cut costs and save time, while maintaining quality standards,  is a good thing, so we are very receptive to new ideas from anyone in the organization. As a small company, we can react and respond quickly to innovative ideas and tend to have a hands-on approach to innovation.

I think it’s important to remember that even trivial, everyday innovations can make a big difference in your daily operations as well as your bottom line. For example, a while back we needed a new safety barrier for our high power laser. A typical laser safety barrier can cost as much as $5000 and require contractor installation in a fixed location, so we decided to leverage our in-house engineers to design and build it ourselves. We expended a small amount of time and energy upfront, and came out with a completed design that is safer, cleanroom compliant, highly modular and costs us a mere $300 in materials while taking one person less than 30 minutes to assemble.

Alyssa: What challenges Mobius?         

Red: Maintaining consistency of process—particularly when it comes to receiving parts and handling accounts and transactions—is a continual challenge. We are a small company with a very complex product and BOM, so we’re always asking ourselves whether we are using our product management tools, like Arena BOMControl, in the most efficient way.

Day-to-day communication with our suppliers around the world is another challenge. We try to keep our suppliers in the fold of our operations as much as possible, but it’s surprising how often a supplier can forget a log-in, which can clog up process.

Alyssa: How have changing market conditions like the recession, increased global competition or natural disasters affected Mobius and its customer base?

Red: The recent tsunami in Japan definitely impacted the semiconductor industry—our primary customer base. This could have been disastrous for us, but fortunately we were at the tail-end of a product design phase and had not yet ramped manufacturing. The poor market conditions gave us a small window of opportunity to prove out and gather data on the quality and cost effectiveness of our product. If we had already ramped and been mid-production when the tsunami hit, we would surely have experienced a very different set of issues.

Alyssa: What unique approaches have helped Mobius achieve success?

Red: We are unusual in our industry in that we’ve merged the design and manufacturing engineering functions and have implemented a cradle-to-grave approach for our engineers. We adopted this philosophy because we believe that when these groups are totally separate, successful hand offs are rare. When engineers follow their designs all the way and are engaged in the manufacturing process, there are fewer errors and less opportunities for miscommunication— and this ultimately creates better synergy between design and production.

Alyssa: If Mobius had a superpower, what would it be?

Red: I’d say that Mobius’ superpower would be the ability to peer into the future and support decisions and investments with big picture in mind. Even if something seems like a big up-front investment, or takes a lot of work initially, we look down the road to determine if it will pay off. If we think it makes sense, we’ll put in the work to get it done right from the start. And so far, this approach has worked really well for us.

For example, we owe the ease with which we scaled to our early implementation of a PLM and ERP system. When we first began Mobius, we had a PLM system (Arena BOMControl), Quick Books and Excel. We were doing a lot of double-entering between Quickbooks and Excel and dealing with all sorts of accounting mismatches—and we quickly realized we needed to start thinking about growth and staying competitive. It’s tough to do this without implementing a PLM and ERP system up front.

Another time we used foresight to our advantage was when we decided to implement a modular design strategy. This design style is still largely unheard of in our industry and comes with some cost, but now we can tinker with one or two components and come out with a new design at a much faster rate. This creates a long term design and engineering savings. Because we invested in the infrastructure in advance, the aggressive goal of developing several new products in 2011 is realistically achievable. The leverage this has given us is huge—we can now develop a new laser design in a matter of months rather than years, which means we have more time and energy to devote to innovation and product optimization.

About the Author

Alyssa Sittig

Alyssa played an instrumental role in the development of the Arena Blog and social media channels from 2011 to 2012. Joining the team with a background in public policy, Alyssa ...

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