Lamphere is sensitive about inadvertently revealing too much about the “secret sauce” behind the company's proprietary technology, so he will not say what percentage of LMS's $6-7 million in revenue goes into R&D. But on a relative basis, it would seem to be substantial.
Eight years ago, the company set up an offsite “Skunk Works” where its engineering team is tasked with developing new ideas into new products. Run by the elder Lamphere, the facility includes a laboratory separate from the one that supports manufacturing and production. There a technical team experiments with new concepts and conducts trials in coordination with the engineering department.
LMS also uses tiger teams that work across all departments to address what the company believes are its most promising new product opportunities, and it is channeling its investment money accordingly. These include technologies that measure fuel levels without penetrating the fuel tank, more energy-efficient systems, and wireless and fiber-optic systems that use light to take precise measurements.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the technology to measure fuel outside of a cell is at a readiness level of about 5. It is an initiative in which LMS is trying to create a market, versus waiting for a customer specifically to request it. The concept could be a game-changer, but it has to be cost-effective, notes Lamphere. “Improved safety would be the most compelling reason to adopt the capability. The trick is to introduce innovative technology while holding the line on cost to the customer. “Ultimately, it will be the customer who will consider the tradeoff.” Another safety-related initiative underway is technology to detect oxygen levels in fuel tanks for real-time smart-tank inerting.
Engineers make up a third of the staff, but all employees are part of the innovation process. “Like a family, we continuously share with our team the challenges and opportunities available to our company in the marketplace,” says Lamphere. “If we innovate and create new solutions for our customers, we build a culture that embraces success and failure, and we learn from both.”
To help sustain such a culture, LMS seeks out partnerships with other businesses that share the company's cultural bent for innovation. There are fewer than 30 employees, and management actively encourages everyone in the organization, from engineering and manufacturing to sales and accounting, to submit new ideas. Rewards are handed out for the most compelling suggestions.
Any ideas on how to reduce life-cycle costs or improve durability are especially valued. Still, every suggestion that bubbles up is taken seriously, because one idea always leads to another, says Lamphere. “At LMS, innovation is a team sport.”