How are the Challengers Awards determined? We went straight to the judges to find out what they look for when judging the most innovative new products, services and manufacturing techniques in woodworking. The competition has grown and changed over 40 years, and the newest award winners will be announced at IWF, Aug. 20 to 23, 2008 in Atlanta, Ga. Go to www.iwfatlanta.com or call 404.693.8333 for more information about the show.

The Challengers Award recognizes advancements in technology or significant contributions to environmental improvement. The awards recognize seven outstanding exhibiting companies. The last competition in 2006 drew 118 entries from more than 70 IWF exhibitors, making it the largest since 1992.

FDM:How are the entries judged? 

CAMPBELL: Judges review and evaluate all of the entries. This process begins several weeks before the show. The entries are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 10 for each entry. Their decisions are forwarded to the IWF office to be tabulated. The top 20, or more if there is a tie for the 20th place, are recognized as finalists. The entries are judged on innovation and impact on the industry

The type of entry varies. Generally, the guidelines are followed and we see new and innovative products and advances to current technology that enhance productivity. (Entries may include a CD, DVD, literature or the physical product.) Sometimes the criteria are virtually ignored by the company making the entry. I think this is because the contest is so visible the company 'hopes' for recognition.

The role of the chairman is most visible at the IWF judging process. The judges have been reviewing, evaluating and discussing the 20 finalists for approximately nine hours. We gather and cast ballots, again ranking one to 10. There is meaningful discussion at this time, quite often some disagreement. The chairman is charged with keeping the discussion moving and eventually getting the judges to vote. The votes are tabulated by the student/faculty representative from Pittsburg State. The top 10 are then reviewed and voted upon. The top seven are the final winners. The process of tabulation is independent of the judges; they only see the final results.

FDM:   How do you judge the entries, and can you measure innovation?

FETZER: We're always looking for fresh ideas in terms of technology and applying existing technology. There are other applications and new technologies that are a great idea but are narrow in application or so expensive that few people will be able to purchase it. The product needs to have a meaningful impact on the industry within the bounds of a new idea.

WELLBORN: I'm looking for anything in processing that saves costs and time. Usually lumber yield is a big item, so anything that can help us use more of the lumber is always a good innovation. I look at the process and apply it to our industry. We have a good cross section of judges from different parts of the wood industry.

DANIELS: I look for something that will do the process at a lower cost or make it more efficient. Last year we asked about the environmental impact from this new technology. Have I ever seen this device, process or result before? Is this new or is this a twist on a current technology or a new application?

FEDRIGO: You're trying to find innovation in various different categories of products: large equipment, small equipment, software, hardware. There's a lot of innovation out there.

To judge innovation, you draw upon what you have seen previously in the industry, and what problems you have encountered. If you see that someone has come up with something new that will address a real problem, that's worth a lot. I think the judges are drawing upon what they have seen in the industry that is available for equipment, hardware, glues, software and tools.

CAMPBELL: It is a judgment by 10 very experienced individuals from all facets of the industry. Is it new? Does it promise improvement? I think the spectrum of experience and the method of judging fairly recognizes what is innovative.

FDM:   What specific things do you look for in the judging process?

HORST: Innovation is something that I look for every year. I look for something that is unique, new and out of the box. It may not be developed and it may not be refined, but if it is developed will make a major contribution to the industry.

The first thing I look for is innovation, then productivity, then marketing. Some of these ideas are incredibly innovative, but they're grass roots and there's very little money behind them, so they can't put on a good show. And there are other entries that we run into that are beautifully marketed and packaged.

WELLBORN: Innovation is mainly what I'm looking for. Most of the time, the entrants are improvements for existing processes. Occasionally you see something new.

FDM:   Do you look for a completely new idea, or something you believe will have the widest application in woodworking?

KRODEL: I look for that innovation and uniqueness first. One thing I look for is technology that supports lean manufacturing. Something very small: lot sizes of one, quick set-up or no set-up, something simple. Some of the applications are patented already. That's helpful to me as a judge because it's been scrutinized already. That carries weight with me on the innovation side.

HORST: I first look for a new idea, but there are not many of them out there, so then you look for something that is an innovative development of an existing idea that has other applications. I think most of our winners fall into the second category.

FEDRIGO: It's both. We're trying to weigh the relative importance of the different criteria. If you found something that was a small innovation but almost everybody in the industry could use it that could certainly be valuable. So could something that was a huge innovation, but cost $600,000 and only the biggest shops would be able to buy it.

WELLBORN: The panel as a whole considers if this machine could fit a good cross-section of the industry versus a single industry application.

FETZER: Fresh technology is my first criteria. Then the other things kick in. I think Challengers Awards are about rewarding innovating thinking and creativity. That's what drives the most productive and most inventive industry in the world.

KRODEL: A lot of these things are judged to be innovative and creative, but it depends a lot on the company and how they market it and get it exposed to folks. Winning the award is one thing. And then getting it out there in an appropriate fashion, making it available and understood in the industry is another task.

The folks here are the pioneers, that's a tough place to be, out on the leading edge.

FDM:How hard is it to choose winners?

FETZER: It's interesting because there are so many new ideas. When we arrive at the show we've already narrowed down the contestants. Then we visit each applicant before the show starts and narrow it down from there. I may choose five that didn't make the final cut, but our consensus has been very good in terms of narrowing down the contestants to 20. The first time I judged, I thought I might be the only judge choosing (certain entries). But I only chose three that the others didn't, so I got 17 out of 20. The other judges are pretty astute at narrowing it down.

WELLBORN: Some entries judge themselves, 75 percent of them are entered by companies that might use it as a sales tool and want to enter something with little to no innovation. However, the other 25 percent are contenders for something new and innovative. Once you narrow those down it's hard to pick that top one. Some very good ideas come up and it gets to be a challenge toward the end.

DANIELS: It's pretty difficult. People who make the submissions know that the technology, the product or the process has got to be top notch, high quality and new to catch our attention, so almost all the submissions fall into that category. Everything is good. I think what distinguishes it in my mind is what's new.

FDM:Are there categories that seem to draw more innovations?

CAMPBELL: I have been most impressed by the application of computer technology to our industry. This is obviously a continuing process but it seemed to explode on our industry particularly as developments in the metalworking industry were applied to our processes.

WELLBORN: The software side is always innovative. They help machinery run faster and better, and they have improved quite a bit in the last few years.

DANIELS: People are finding new ways to clamp, hang or move wood panels and pieces of lumber, to do different machining applications or combine applications that used to be manual or independent. And they're finding ways to machine lumber at extremely high speeds.

HORST: Hardware, tooling and small equipment are common, and then of course you get all the large equipment manufacturers. Innovation stands out. We may not have the same experience in a particular discipline, but to somebody that's an experienced manufacturer, it can be easily explained how it works and why it makes sense.

FETZER: The larger companies don't seem to have a corner on innovation. Although they do some stunning things, ideas seem to come from all points. They seem to come from small woodworkers and machinery companies as well as larger companies.

FDM:   What kind of products would you like to see in the competition?

FEDRIGO: I hope that the competition continues to draw the entire gamut of products. I think it did last time. There were a lot of entries that were really clever things, from very small hardware items and new software tools to small pieces of equipment, from hand tools, to medium-size pieces of equipment and to very large pieces of equipment. The whole range of things that you would see at IWF was represented in the entries, and I would hope that continues to be the case.

WELLBORN: I would like to see finishing products improve the process and to eliminate VOCs cost effectively. I would like to see a good way of consuming the VOCs as a fuel to generate electricity or steam would be very good for the industry.

HORST: The whole area of environmental stewardship. We have a category now that includes green manufacturing, more efficient equipment and less waste. I think that's going to get a lot of attention for the next couple of years. Other than that, I hope we continue to see a really good, well-supported group of entries in all the categories, and the more the better.

KRODEL: I'd like to see more efforts toward technologies and efforts that support lean manufacturing, and also that focus on environmental improvement.

FETZER: Machines that are faster and more versatile, and more easily adapted to various needs.

DANIELS: I'd like to see continued automation that reduces processing time and increases lumber yield, equipment that will yield the best out of the lumber that's available. And technology that's going to save companies money and continue to make us a profitable industry.

FDM:   What do you see in the future for the competition?

WELLBORN: The entrants will expand and a wider range of people will try. Entering the competition does require some effort; it's not just a marketing tool. We take the judging very seriously. We would like to have more entrants but we want companies to enter innovative products, not everyday products.

DANIELS: Now that I participated, I'm really looking forward to it because IWF is doing a good job of promoting the competition and the award. I'm really looking forward to seeing all the entries that come in. It makes it a little tougher to choose the top ones, but they've done a good job of promoting it.

FEDRIGO: The only trend that comes to mind is that we saw a number of entries last time around related to the whole green movement. And I think we will see that trend continue this time around. So whether its products that are more energy efficient or finishing materials that emit less, I think you'll see a lot more of the green entries this time around.

KRODEL: Innovation is something that drives a lot of folks, a lot of machinery manufacturers, and that's what moves our country forward. I don't think there's going to be any letting up on that. I think any industry that is not inventing and re-creating is in trouble. I would also expect that there will be a few more environmental entries.

CAMPBELL:  I think the future of the competition is bright. The industry is going through great changes. The new products and technology need a venue. IWF does a superior job reaching the targeted audiences for these developments.

FETZER: I was very taken in the last competition in that people came up with so many new and varied ideas. I really think we are going to see a proliferation of ideas that make us more competitive with the world market. That's my positive outlook. I see it happening in the woodworking business. I think the woodworking machinery business used to follow the ideas in metalworking machines. Now, the woodworkers are innovating on their own, which was evident in the last show. I expect that to continue in the future. I'm optimistic about keeping the woodworking business here because we'll be quicker on our feet.

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