Needle’s Eye (NE): What is “the inventor’s dilemma?”
David J. Gerber (DJG): Some dilemmas my dad overcame with his ability to solve problems. In his boyhood, this included his devising a way to escape a train that was transporting him to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. In later years, it involved solving seemingly impossible business problems, such as finding a market that simply does not exist, or technical problems that require simultaneously satisfying opposite physical conditions like a knife that will bend more as it becomes thicker but must become thicker to become more rigid.
The “inventor’s dilemma” also refers more ominously to problems that we face today. As an entrepreneur, my dad built a company on principles of invention.
Although these inventions created significant shareholder value, financial markets increasingly demanded business practices that undermined these principles. On an even broader level, his story demonstrates how invention can help preserve American industry. His ability to see inventive opportunity relied on his proximity to manufacturers. Visiting a factory, he might notice wasted material in scraps on a workroom floor, and as a result, he would work out a better approach. Or a factory manager needing an invention might call him. If America’s industrial base goes abroad for low-cost labor, much of this interaction would vanish. The very invention needed to increase manufacturing productivity would become more difficult. This poses a dilemma for inventors as well as for manufacturers in America.
NE: Joe Gerber has been written about quite a bit over the years in business and industry publications – what made you decide to write his official biography?
DJG: The vast scope of my dad’s work and influence on the modern history of manufacturing was recognized by the Smithsonian [National Museum of American History] and the National Academy of Engineering, and then when President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology. But the articles written about my dad in a dozen or so different industries were generally focused on his impact on individual industries. By viewing this story across these industries, patterns became clearer. In addition, the personal side of my father’s life was only known superficially. Delving deeply, I was able to illuminate the formation of my dad’s ethos of invention and the evolution of his methods of innovation.
NE: Your father holds over 677 U.S. and foreign patents in his name. Which do you think is the most important invention or innovation?
DJG: The automated cloth cutter. Inventors had sought to automate production cloth cutting for almost a century, without success. My dad’s seminal inventions for this product did not rely on the timing of background advancements in technology; they were just very clever. For example, the most vexing problem was how a machine could hold tall stacks of cloth in place during the cutting operation. Other inventors’ ideas, ranging from rollers and clamps to electrification and new clothing material, had all failed. My dad combined a powerful vacuum beneath the cutting surface and a sacrificial plastic overlay on top of the stack. This held the entire stack rigidly in place and also made stacks of different types of cloth, from hard denim to fluffy fabrics, all behave similarly under the knife. Even today, seven decades later, his seminal inventions remain the only viable way for automatically cutting cloth for the mass production of most apparel.
Automated cutting was the key to transforming the entire system of manufacture, bringing the benefits of automated production to apparel factories and merchandisers: It simplified cutting tool paths, making computer-based layouts possible; and it improved cut quality, dramatically reduced time required in sewing. From early on, my dad envisioned—and later launched—a broad suite of products that would connect the apparel manufacturing process from design through assembly, allow modern production methods and inventory controls, and integrate with merchandisers. With the commercialization of his cutter, which offered previously unimaginable speeds and efficiencies, and the system of automation that it enabled, apparel became inexpensive. As a result, wardrobes grew, people stopped mending, fashion seasons multiplied, and clothing became more democratic. In addition, automation-based productivity stemmed the offshoring of apparel manufacturing for two generations and improved working conditions.
NE: Why was he so intent on changing entire systems rather than individual parts?
DJG: Over time, my dad came to recognize inventing integrated systems as a basic strategy and a powerful way to create value in the computer era. This includes greater inventive possibilities and the ability to leverage the flexibility of computer automation for quick turnaround, lean manufacturing, small lot sizes, remote operations, and digital connectivity.