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Innovation helps fabrics industry expand

Features, Management | March 1, 2009 | By:

Processes that spark innovation are just good business

Most people agree that innovation is the key to growth and expansion, but some innovative business practices are truly inspired in their creativity and utility. Innovation is a widely used term, but not readily understood, says Louis Foreman, founder of Enventys, a full service product development company in Charlotte, N.C. Many companies that claim to be innovative are really talking about extensions to existing product lines. To be truly innovative is to anticipate what consumers want before they know they want it.

“Before we had TiVo® we didn’t know that we needed it, but it’s really hard to live without it once you have it,” says Foreman. His company teaches clients about the Ennovation approach: results-based innovation that generates ideas internally or externally, engages your entire staff, is entrepreneurial, executable and provides a return on investment.

“It’s changing the mind-set of companies from internal brainstorming to utilizing a whole host of ideas—from buyers, sales and marketing, customer service, outside design and engineering firms, or ideas that come from the public. It amazes me that some companies don’t even listen to the voice of the customer when they’re developing product,” says Foreman.

The idea of open innovation was made popular by Proctor & Gamble’s CEO and president, A.G. Lafley, in his book, “The Game Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation.” He wanted 50 percent of all ideas generated from outside the company. Ten years ago that was laughable, Foreman says, but he argued that a billion dollar brand is just as likely to come from outside a company as inside. From this new approach, Proctor & Gamble has brought 400 new products to market, generating $10 billion in sales.

Starbucks, too, opened up its ideation process by launching an “I have an idea” section on its Web site that generated hundreds of thousands of submissions from the general public. “We’re a more connected world now, so ideas flow more freely from people that have the ideas to people that need the ideas,” Foreman adds. “Companies that are embracing ideas from outside the company are doing very well. Companies that say, ‘we’re the smartest, we’re the best,’ are failing.”

Itersectional innovation to generates new ideas

The leadership development program at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, Canada, takes a similar approach. Its program focuses explicitly on the idea of intersectional innovation from “The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us about Innovation” by Frans Johansson, a graduate of Harvard Business School. Intersectional innovation holds that innovation occurs, not by “thinking outside the box, or being cutting-edge, but by bringing people from diverse backgrounds to the center of the box where the most creative ideas and innovations emerge,” explains Nick Nissley, executive director of leadership development.

The Banff Centre is able to provide a place where this intersectional innovation can occur because of its three business components, made up of a fine arts education center that attracts artists and arts educators from 65 countries, a mountain culture program and leadership development. Business leaders are taught on the stage, dance floor or in the musician’s room, rather than classrooms, and artists and artistic processes help to form the practice of leadership so they learn to think creatively.

A second element to the program focuses on human resourcefulness. Every organization has a human resource management function, Nissley says, but people don’t want to be managed as if they’re human resource assets. “What if you shifted that to think more about human resourcefulness, the capacity to think and act beyond boundaries to achieve more than you previously imagined? We try to build the human resourcefulness through intersectional innovation, giving diverse people the opportunity to bring diverse ideas and give them the space to do it.”

Various strategies to enable innovation

Globe Manufacturing Co. in Pittsfield, N.H., makers of firefighters’ protective clothing, has created a culture of open innovation through its six “enablers” of innovation. It starts with a commitment from every employee, and includes ideation through multi-discipline design teams, engaging end-users in the product development process, saying “yes” to customers, and soliciting their feedback. In the current economic times, innovation is more necessary to capture the business that is there and put you ahead of the game when the economy eases up, says Mark Mordecai, director of business development.

“In any industry today you can’t aim where the customer is. It’s like shooting sporting clays. You have to lead the target so that you hit where the customer is going to,” he says. “Once you stake out the position of leadership in the marketplace, you’re like a hamster on the wheel. You have to drive that innovation process continuously, and faster and faster.

“The rate of change is accelerating and you’re either going to be an agent of change or you’re going to have it happen to you, to your disadvantage,” he adds. “Once you embrace a culture of change, the path becomes a lot clearer and is critical to success.”

Today, almost 100 percent of Globe’s business comes from product models that were introduced in the past five years. It used to be 10 or 15 years between models, says Mordecai. That keeps their wheels turning and ensures their production cycle has a pipeline of new products that are the most innovative in their class.

Another component of successful innovation is through strategic partnerships with other technology holders and suppliers. “No company can invent everything themselves,” says Mordecai. “Most innovation today is coming out of partnerships, using technology from a variety of sources to come up with new products.”

Collaboration addresses unmet customer needs

Bud Weisbart, IFM, vice president of AR Tech and AR Industries, divisions of A&R Tarpaulins Inc., in Fontana, Calif., believes more innovation should be coming out of the fabrics industry despite the economy. Many companies are averse to risk right now and are “circling the wagons,” rather than addressing the needs of customers and responding to the opportunities.

“There are many, many unmet needs for products and services which members of our industry can address,” says Weisbart. “In the best of times we probably meet at a maximum 10 percent of the potential applications for what we do, so if the market is cut by even 50 percent, we would still only be addressing 20 percent of the market potential. We need to grow our industry to eat into that 90 percent or more of unmet needs.”

One way to do that is to apply one’s core competencies innovatively to address the needs and issues of customers. A&R collaborated with Boeing on a top-secret satellite launch, which required a large enclosure that would prohibit any kind of electronic or visual observances. “We had a core competency that we’ve done over the years and presented a new approach that they needed,” says Weisbart.

He agrees that more collaboration among colleagues and even mentoring colleagues in the industry is needed to spawn new markets. “We don’t use the word ‘competitors’, we use ‘colleagues’,” he says. “That’s not a concept easily accepted by all businesses.”

Collaboration brings innovative ideas to life

Eight years ago Debra Aperfine found herself literally pursuing a dream that her then seven-year-old daughter had about a purple raincoat that tuned to pink in the rain. After repeated requests for her “purple raincoat,” Aperfine launched a nightmarish quest to uncover how it could be done. After hundreds of phone calls and hours of guarded discussions with polymer and pigment experts, scientists and business owners, she got her break when one color house president accidentally picked up the wrong phone line and was intrigued by Aperfine’s determination. Despite his protests that it was “impossible,” he agreed to help.

In 2002, Aperfine had her team—the color house president and the president of a manufacturer of flexible films. The three of them brainstormed weekly, and in January 2006 they had their first successful purple-to-pink flexible film prototype.

“It was then we realized, wow, we have just developed a very serious product that can be used in multiple industries,” says Aperfine. “This little dream that my daughter had was a much bigger picture and these products could be all over the world. ”Their company, Chameleon International in Oak Ridge, N.C., is now marketing ChroMyx™, a flexible film with color-changing, temperature-sensitive, waterproof properties. Unlike other films that use color-changing inks, ChroMyx properties are embedded and permeate the film. Aperfine’s daughter, now 15, is working with Wells Hosiery & Apparel in Asheboro, N.C., to design a line of ChroMyx rainwear that will debut this fall. ChroMyx is also being used in product development for the medical, safety, adhesives, furniture, toy, apparel and accessories industries.

“This is the perfect time for our product because people are looking for new things and we can help by offering ChroMyx, which makes their product different,” says Aperfine. She, like others, believes partnerships across industries are the best path to innovation, and that there are many opportunities in specialty fabrics to do that with new developments in nanotechnologies, smart textiles and other technologies.

“I do think it’s important we collaborate to make all our products better and get them out there. We all have to protect ourselves,” she says, “but at the same time if we have common goals and work together, we can take our technologies and create another unique product that no one else has ever seen. Who knows what we can come up with?”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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