The Frontier Series: John Landrum, Vice president at Intralox
The Frontier Series: John Landrum, Vice President at Intralox
August 14th, 2018
The Frontier Conference co-founder Hank Torbert talks with John Landrum, Vice President at Intralox, about the local manufacturer’s culture of innovation and what it is doing to solve its customers’ biggest problem.
You are spearheading innovation at one of the most impressive companies in our region and in the sector, can you tell us about yourself and your role at Intralox?
I practiced law for 10 years before joining Laitram in 1993. I had served on the board of a local nonprofit with Jay Lapeyre and that led to discussions about joining Laitram, the parent of Intralox. I was never in the legal department; I started as the leader of Laitram’s in-house advertising group, then went with the family to Amsterdam for three years where I became the European General Manager for Intralox. European revenues then were in the neighborhood of $15 million; they are roughly 10 times that number now. When I returned to New Orleans, I had responsibility for emerging industries. Some really talented people reporting to me opened up the tiremaking industry with some breakthrough new products; it’s a major source of revenue for us now. Later, some of these people, and others, explored the logistics market (the U.S. Post Office, warehousers like Amazon and parcel companies like UPS). That business has really exploded. In 2011, I took responsibility for our global product development.
James Martial (J.M.) Lapeyre, founder of Laitram, is a legend in terms of innovation and applying new ideas to the industrials sector. Can you tell us about what was his driving force to innovate and what let him to found Laitram?
J.M. Lapeyre died in 1989, before I joined the company, so I never had a chance to know him. People who worked with him say that his mind had an unusual capacity for seeing possibility where no one else did, and then pursuing that possibility to completion in the face of skepticism or difficulty. He followed his own independent judgment instead of deferring to the opinions of others. The result was a total of 190 original U.S. patents, ranging from the original shrimp peeling machine that laid the foundation for the first operating company, Laitram Machinery, to a digital compass that laid the foundation for a high-tech subsidiary, the locally-famous space-saving stair and the modular, plastic conveyor belt that Intralox makes and sells. Outside that group were a jet engine, an optical printer, a two-stroke computer keyboard, methods of harnessing wave action and many others. The hallway featuring his patents alone justifies a visit to the campus in Harahan.
Tell us about the culture of innovation that is very clearly thriving at Intralox. How did it begin and how do leaders there continue to inspire Intralox’s employees?
J.M. Lapeyre’s son, Jay Lapeyre, has led the company since the late 1980’s. Jay pushed for two breakthrough innovations in business model and culture. Intralox began selling direct to end users in food processing and manufacturing, instead of through local distributors, back when that was very unusual for a component supplier our size. It was a high-risk move but it allowed our sellers to work directly with accounts to sell the value of our solutions. It also allowed a service model that still sets an example for the industry: application specialists directly supporting installations, toll-free, 24-hour customer service with experts taking the calls, and a lead capacity in manufacturing that allows us to guarantee an emergency shipment of a built to order belt in four hours. This maximizes our customer uptime, which is very important to their financial health.
The second innovation was our culture, known as the Laitram Business Philosophy or Laitram Continuous Improvement. How can you make the workplace a triple win for customers, shareholders and employees? By creating best practices for raising customer value or reducing costs and distributing the resulting profits with employees through profit incentives. So our discussions are not so much about “Who has status?” but about “What is the problem we are trying to solve and who has ideas to solve them?” When a Laitram meeting is going well, it should be hard to discern who “outranks” someone else in the room. This culture is a major attractive force for talent. High performers want to be listened to, and they want to feel that they impact results. And they want to get paid for it.
Specifically to innovation, we push for good problem definition and we push for collaboration. Imagine a patient walking into a medical office and asking for an appendectomy. It would seem a little ridiculous for the doctor just to find an open time in the operating room and get on with it, without checking more background, right? Customers quite understandably tend to ask for a particular solution – the equivalent of an appendectomy – and our lead engineers are very good at asking more questions to discern what problems they are trying to solve. That widens and clarifies the solution field.
Because our customers trust us, and because we are bringing them more innovative solutions, they ask us increasingly challenging questions. Their needs are too diverse, and the best opportunities are too challenging, for any single engineer, no matter how brilliant, to optimize the solution single-handedly. So we have to collaborate. This means escaping the “expert” mindset (I measure how much I know compared to peers) and moving to the “solution” mindset (I manage conversations well so that the best ideas from any source rise to the top). Fortunately there is a critical mass of talent in the company that embraces and models these habits.
What’s the biggest problem for your customers that you and Intralox are trying to solve now?
In the logistics world, parcel handlers want to continuously raise the throughput and reliability of automation. We’re working on a solution for introduction next year that offers a step-function improvement to enable very high-speed sortation.
In food processing, avoiding contamination is key. This means avoiding biological contamination through expert hygienic consulting and through the most cleanable solutions. It also means making sure that our own solutions are not vulnerable to breakage or chemical attack, so that chunks of plastic don’t end up in a bag of potato chips. Intralox leads in the development of products and services to make this real.
As you know, I am deeply focused building on building an industrials-focused innovation eco-system in our region. In your opinion, what can we do to expand Louisiana’s industrial innovation eco-system?
Easy – send the best and the brightest to Laitram to support our global growth. Seriously, the growing emphasis locally on maker skills and maker spaces for people embracing those skills is very encouraging. I hear good things about Bricolage, a public school with great emphasis on maker skills. There are a growing number of robotics competitions locally. A generation ago, too many students avoided science and technology because the career opportunities may not have seemed as attractive. There seems a growing awareness of the potential for very good careers in manufacturing, engineering and business in general.
Manufacturing is rapidly transforming, from its use of automation, IoT, AI, VR/AR, 3D printing, et. al. Are you using any new manufacturing technologies? Should we be focused on the increased use of these new technologies?
Internally, we are looking more at the use of “big data” to optimize efficiencies. Example: Why does the same part get a cycle time of X in a plastic injection molding machine when the same part gets a longer cycle time in a different machine?
With customers, we currently offer a belt that can self-diagnose in a demanding environment and send a warning signal before there is a risk of breakdown. We have more solutions of this kind in our patent portfolio and we’re also developing the ability to offer customers an integrated IOT solution to help them manage the product-motion part of their business. We expect this to be big.
Everyone talks about advanced and additive manufacturing, but what are they really? How can companies use them to increase production, operation efficiencies, etc.?
We use additive manufacturing for the production of demonstration parts. We haven’t seen this technology yet ripen to the point where we could use them for actual production parts our customers could use in their environments. But we keep a close eye on this and think it’s likely just a matter of time. Some of the most impressive work in this field is apparently being done in this geographic area.
Hank Torbert, author of this article, is founder of The Frontier Conference, an event focused on bringing key industrial sector leaders together to discuss and collaborate around innovation and disruptive technologies.