FedEx Offers to Partner With Defense Industry to Counter Cargo Bomb Threat
But Friday's discovery of explosive cargo on U.S. bound planes, including a FedEx aircraft, makes the innovation practices of a company that transports 8 million packages each day around the world all the more relevant.
“At FedEx, we don't invent technology,” said David Zanca, senior vice president of information technology. The company has a method for encouraging both “big bang” innovation and incremental improvements that can be exchanged with government agencies and competitors to strengthen national security, he told an audience of industry professionals and Coast Guard personnel.
“It doesn't serve anyone's benefit if only one of us knows how to find the bad guy,” Zanca said. “We are more than happy to open our labs.”
The FedEx Innovation Labs are located in a renovated furniture warehouse along the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. There, a team investigates future technologies that have a three-to-five year production time line.
“We took them out of headquarters and put them in an incubator setting,” Zanca said. The employees rotate in and out of the labs on a two-year cycle to keep ideas fresh and informed by what is happening in the field. “We can't spend years and years on development of a solution. We need to find fast, go-to-market type of capability to say ahead of, in our case, the competition and the bad guys.”
In the past, FedEx has worked with federal agencies on activities involving terrorist cells and even offered up its planes for risky experiments. In 2008, a Northrop Grumman anti-missile system was tested using a dozen FedEx planes. The system uses lasers to divert incoming shoulder-fired missiles away from the aircraft.
FedEx's newest invention created at the labs is a product called SenseAware, a small device that can be placed inside packages to report location and other data back to a user via a tiny cell phone. The invention is ideal for sensitive shipments such as medical supplies that need to stay at a certain temperature, Zanca said.
“Not every breakthrough works” though, Zanca cautioned. “You have to create a culture that allows for some failure but celebrates success.”
FedEx welcomes ideas from everyone, from the top down, he said. The company has a social networking model for submitting and evaluating proposals. Employees pitch ideas on a special website, and others rate them. Each month, leaders evaluate the submissions and relegate projects either to the labs or to groups working on more incremental studies.
The Coast Guard's 2010 innovation expo has attracted a record crowd and features more than 500 exhibits, including a “Green Zone” showcasing the service's latest in environment-friendly initiatives.
Ten years ago, the first expo brought in just a couple of hundred people. Capt. Joseph M. Re, chairman of the Coast Guard's innovation council, said that it resembled a middle school science fair. At this year's show, attendance is expected to exceed 1,600.