While we’re always busy Engineering Quality of Life for our clients and communities, there’s more that goes on behind the scenes.
Officially founded in 2013 as Clark Dietz’s Research and Development program, Innovation Engineering Program (IEP) is an internal program at Clark Dietz, Inc. dedicated to developing new ideas and leadership within our field. Understanding that innovation often requires assessing technological and programmatic needs beyond the scope of our traditional projects, the Board of Directors established the vision for the IEP program.
“The Innovation Engineering Program is very important to us,” says Clark Dietz President and CEO Chip Craddock. “The research developed by the program is often related to passion projects—while they have the potential to improve internal processes, a project doesn’t have to be tied to revenue generation. It allows our staff to have a very visible opportunity to influence the way our firm uses technology.”
We often find that the most successful projects find ways to work with existing clients or community partner on a problem we’re curious about solving, regardless of whether the potential solution bears fruit. For IEP, the learning opportunity is the program’s primary export.
Innovation Program Inspiration
Equipment manufacturers often have research groups dedicated to developing better widgets and academic researchers explore new materials, biological processes, and other cutting-edge technologies. Consulting engineers typically do not have the luxury of resources and staff those industries do; however, we still strive to explore new ideas and applications. In doing so, we took the best practices from other industries to adapt to our own model.
Some of the lessons we learned included keeping IEP teams both focused and diverse. Typically, the working groups are smaller, between one and four people, yet we try to include diverse levels of staff and expertise. We intentionally did not station IEP in a single location, instead it is open to all employees in all offices. Often large innovation labs locate themselves away from corporate headquarters to foster creativity without involvement of too many senior leaders. We also pursued lean-ness with a single program leader and an informal project submission process to promote agility in the types of projects approved.
Innovation Engineering Program operates with a shared staff concept. If a Clark Dietz employee is staffed on an approved research and development project, they are approved for a set number of overhead hours, which are scheduled in amongst their other chargeable projects.
In fact, the goal in many instances is to provide added benefit for clients by seeking a solution to a challenge outside of a typical project’s scope.
For example, for one client we developed a test bed to measure sludge settling velocity at a wastewater treatment facility. While this wasn’t within our scope, we were able to develop a site-specific sludge flux curve, which was used to optimize clarifier design and plant-specific state point control.
Executive Vice President and Business Development Director, Wes Christmas, PE, says, “More than just producing a white paper or presentation, what we have created is the ability to demonstrate to clients that we care about them and the process of innovation. Solving problems for clients is also an important selling strategy—sharing deliverables with prospects to consider whether Clark Dietz is a fit for them is an invaluable tool.”
Clark Dietz is actively seeking prospects that not only operate with honesty and mutual respect, but that place a high value on collaboration that can lead to true innovation. When clients and prospects bring research ideas to our staff for us to investigate, we know that the mission of our Innovation Engineering Program is succeeding on the level of core partnership alignment.
The Recipe for Success…
“While there are limitations related to budgets, staffing, and priorities while selecting projects to move forward with, we have never said ‘no’ to an idea,” says Vice President and IEP Program Director, Andrea Bretl, PE, ENV SP, “and unless someone asked to research the best recipe for chocolate croissants, I don’t think we would.”
That said, the program is not intended to be used for marketing an existing service or filling gaps in a project budget but to explore new ideas.
The recipe for success, or otherwise, is simple: our main objective is learning and growth. In essence, failure is an option if we document our results and analyze how we may improve our research or techniques during the next attempt.
The current project application process is straightforward by design. Any member of Clark Dietz may submit a project idea to Andrea for consideration. If necessary, Andrea helps to usher the idea towards a core learning objective, and then asks the submitter to outline the research project and required resources, answer basic project guidelines, establish a timeline, and submit a project budget. Andrea forwards the final proposal and recommendation to the Executive Committee for final approval.
Once a project receives formal approval, Andrea asks the project leader to report on progress quarterly. At the end of the project’s timeline, she reviews the project’s deliverable before the project leader presents the results to staff during our annual meetings.
“I’m lucky to have a front-row seat to the projects we undertake,” says Andrea. “More often than not we are able to produce a great presentation to share with clients and coworkers. Sometimes the results aren’t as expected, but that’s just the nature of research. I always encourage staff to submit an idea without getting bogged down by any preconceived expectations."
Taking Andrea’s advice into consideration, we’re always looking for ways to increase staff participation in IEP. One recently submitted idea involved having a friendly competition between our Clark Dietz service lines to come up with a selected IEP project idea.
We would also like to increase utilization of engineering interns by potentially assigning an intern to each IEP project. Interns would benefit from additional training by experienced staff, while the project would receive the aid of additional dedicated staff-hours.
Real Program, Real Results
One of the most obvious advantages for Clark Dietz staff involved in an IEP project is the visibility it provides not only within the firm but in the industry and professional community as well. We actively seek opportunities to promote publication or speaking engagements. In any case, we are happy to share the results internally.
Earlier in IEP’s history, professional services were exploring drone’s potential uses on project sites. A Clark Dietz project spurred the ideation of an IEP research endeavor: we were hired by the Village of Richton Park to complete engineering services for the Phase I Poplar Avenue Bike Trail. Since the project budget did not allow the inclusion of a traditional topographic survey, Clark Dietz’s Antonio Acevedo, PE submitted an IEP request to explore the feasibility of using a drone for topographical data. After approval, Antonio used a drone to fly the project corridor. The drone was pre-programmed with an altitude, speed, and flight path to capture hundreds of images of the project site along a preset grid. As the drone captured these images, its GPS unit recorded the horizontal and vertical positioning of the drone as well as the angle of the camera. All the photos were then stitched together using a process called photogrammetry to create a 3D model and surface of the existing site. This 3D surface was then calibrated and tied to a local coordinate system with the use of ground control points that were surveyed using traditional methods.
“In Phase 2 we were able to perform a true topographical survey, so we were able to compare the accuracy of phase 1 level drone-survey and found despite some limitations, the photogrammetric survey was a valuable technique, especially in cases of budget constraints. Clark Dietz has always supported my curiosity and ways to better utilize technology,” says Antonio.
Involved in a number of IEP projects, Vice President Sean Widener reinforces the value of our innovative aspirations.
“It was important to evaluate the results of our transportation designs which unlike national research programs, is seldom afforded at the local level. Our transportation team was able to compare before and after traffic data to determine that intersection safety was improved. That local knowledge is an immediate benefit to our clients and communities that we serve.”
What are IEP’s Goals for the Future?
Whether a client’s project involves building or updating facilities, municipal works, power and energy, transportation and roadways, or water, Clark Dietz is looking for partners that seek innovative solutions that will enhance quality of life. Further, we know that our client’s share our passion to create lasting, sustainable, and smart design implementation. When our partners inspire IEP’s next research project, we will offer the same flexibility, commitment, and attention to detail we bring to every engagement.
Clark Dietz’s Board of Directors have set clear goals for the success and expansion of IEP:
- Bring new ideas to clients or potential clients
- Demonstrate the effectiveness of new technology or systems
- Leverage Clark Dietz resources to expand potential planning and design options
- Create growth and learning opportunities for Clark Dietz employee
- Generate publishable thought leadership, conference topics, or white papers highlighting Clark Dietz’s knowledge
Clark Dietz encourages our employees to be the future of the IEP program. We have opened the floor to fuel our curiosity and make connections. What opportunities have we yet to explore? We hope our clients and partners will help us support our values while also improving our offerings.
“In contrast to large companies with dedicated innovation program staff, every Clark Dietz employee is a member of IEP,” says Marketing Director Scott Anstandig. “I’m extremely impressed with the way my colleagues approach complex engineering problems with genuine excitement. I’m looking forward to hearing about our next project.”