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Companies look for innovation in tours

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Les Gies, with TechShop gives members of the Catlyst Group a tour of the facility in Bakery Square Thursday, September 19, 2013.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Les Gies, with TechShop gives members of the Catlyst Group a tour of the facility in Bakery Square Thursday, September 19, 2013.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Peter Owens, an instructor with TechShop works on his motocross bike inside the facility in Bakery Square Thursday, September 19, 2013.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Members work at stations inside TechShop in Bakery Square Thursday, September 19, 2013.

Innovation was a concept unfamiliar to Bob Hoolahan, CEO of All Water Systems Inc. in Turtle Creek.

Little did he know it would help him build a successful company over 33 years that provides specialized water treatment systems for businesses and researchers at PPG Industries Inc., Consol Energy Inc., Carnegie Mellon University and others.

Without realizing it, the high level of customer service he emphasized through the years was an innovative way to keep his clients satisfied and grow his business.

“I never knew what innovation meant until they told me,” Hoolahan said on Thursday during a program aimed at helping companies like his improve through innovation.“We realized we're doing innovative things, and we're looking at ways to do more.”

He's not the only one looking for help. Five area manufacturers, including All Water Systems, participated in the pilot program created by Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps manufacturers.

Executives toured Daedalus Inc., a firm in Lawrenceville that helps companies design products, and TechShop Inc., a workshop and prototyping studio at Bakery Square in Larimer, which furnishes the tools of innovation to its 450 members and hundreds more who have taken classes and training since it opened six months ago.

“A lot of people, when they think about innovation, think about Steve Jobs,” said Connie Palucka of Catalyst Connection. “But innovation goes across a lot of lines — to services, processes and always looking to deliver for the customer.”

At All Water Systems, in addition to selling water treatment equipment, Hoolahan developed a service culture that “customers appreciate and find painless. He's got a real good reputation in that field,” she said.

“The innovation program gave us a formality to what we were doing,” Hoolahan said. “Now we're doing things like database mining, which was never part of our thinking.” All Water Systems has about 400 customers who use its high-purity water systems.

Mecco Marking & Traceability Inc., a 124-year-old company in Cranberry, participated in the innovation program. Ian Conaway, applications engineer, said he learned about “the process and procedure of finding new ideas that I never heard or thought of before.”

Mecco sells tools to place imprint codes, numbers and logos on metal products, instead of labels that can fall off. “We don't have an idea team. I've been tasked to help us stay at the cutting edge and give us an edge in the large and competitive market we deal in,” said Conaway, who's in charge of a laser-marking system the company sells.

David Manko, director of global engineering at Kurt J. Lesker Co. in Jefferson Hills, said the company “wanted to get a fresh perspective on product development.” Lesker manufactures and distributes equipment that creates a vacuum — chambers, hardware and pumps — and assembles vacuum systems.

“We've been overhauling our entrepreneurial process and wanted to figure out how to do it faster and more efficiently,” said Jenna Lesker, the company's finance manager.

Tim Fletcher, a designer and business development manager at Daedalus, described product design thinking as “understanding how a product will be used.” Daedalus has been engineering and designing products for companies since 1979 and has 24 employees. Designers use user-centered research, models and repeated redesigns to produce a prototype and then do it again and again.

“Instead of a process, think of it as a set of toolboxes with a different set for each situation and goal,” he said.

TechShop's tools for inventors range from computers and 3-D printers, laser and water-jet cutters, to a complete machine and wood shop. “We're a catalyst, a gateway where someone with very little training can come in, take a class or workshop and gain skills that can be used in the workplace,” said Les Gies, accounts manager at TechShop in Pittsburgh.

The company is based in Menlo Park, Calif., and has eight locations nationwide. The Pittsburgh location in Bakery Square was opened under a partnership with TechShop, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency under a two-year agreement, said Matt Verlinich, general manager. Under the agreement, TechShop provides sponsored memberships for veterans.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or

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