For most businesses, change is an essential part of long-term success. Ongoing innovation, in products, processes, service and value, is the best way to beat the competition.
Innovation. It’s the essential ingredient in any company’s ability to thrive and stay viable for the long haul. Innovative companies are restless explorers, constantly searching for and testing out new ideas, investigating new markets, looking for ways to become more value-added for their customers. It’s a relentless undertaking, not for the limited of vision or the “we’ve always done it this way” thinkers. Instead, innovation requires a willingness to examine assumptions, stick your neck out and possibly fail. Risky, yes, but the potential rewards make taking the chance worthwhile.
Consider Anchor Industries Inc. Founded in 1892, the company started out as a small riverboat supply house located on the Ohio River, says Mike Fuerstenau, director of marketing and product management for the Evansville, Ind.-based company. Known then as the Anchor Supply Co., it initially provided oil, groceries and other items to the steamboat trade. Noticing a rising demand for waterproof covers, the founder added canvas goods to the inventory. Now Anchor offers party and wedding tents, awnings and shade structures, temporary and semi-permanent fabric buildings, safety pool covers and other custom fabric and frame products designed for a broad spectrum of markets and applications.
Another example is Eastman Machine Co. Headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., it has been manufacturing fabric cutting equipment since 1888, says Robert L. Stevenson, president and CEO. Originally, Eastman Machine manufactured cutting machines for harnesses and other horse-related items. Later, the company began offering cutting machines for apparel. Later still, noticing a rise in the use of industrial specialty fabrics, the company moved into this arena.
The key is allowing innovation to develop organically, utilizing each employee’s strengths.
-Charles Webster Jr., Dowco Inc.
Now, Stevenson says, they manufacture cutting equipment for fabrics used by aerospace (such as carbon graphite pre-preg and resin-coated fabrics), the wind energy field and for fabrics used for inflatable and permanent structures (such as the fabric roof of the Denver International Airport), in addition to other markets such as recreational space. “Staying innovative is the only way to stay in business,” Stevenson says. “We’re continually expanding our product—like in terms of creating faster machines and developing user-friendly software. Seventy percent of what we sell today wasn’t even invented 25 years ago.”
Finding the spark
Sometimes a product, service or process springs out of nowhere, filling—or creating—a previously unrecognized need. Perhaps more commonly, innovation arises by request, identified necessity or opportunity.
Kathie Leonard, president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing Inc. (AMI), says the company’s main innovation driver has been customer demand for various performance characteristics or solutions for specific heat problems. Headquartered in Mechanic Falls, Maine, AMI specializes in making heat-resistant textiles designed to save energy and provide fire and heat protection. Industries utilizing AMI’s products include petrochemical, refining, utilities, shipbuilding and repair, among others. “The company initially offered one textile product as a safe substitute for asbestos,” Leonard says. “Since then we’ve grown to almost 1000 SKUs, including fabrics of various fibers in combination with protective coatings and laminates, specialty textile forms like ropes and tapes and most recently, flexible composites. This broadening of our manufacturing expertise has enabled us to expand into new markets outside of the industrial space.”
A latest innovation is Ever Green® Cut ‘n Wrap™, a modular insulation system designed to improve the energy efficiency of various institutional facilities like colleges, hospitals and government buildings, Leonard says. Recently, the company began offering appraisal, engineering and installation services to end-users considering this product.
Operating for more than 200 years, SEFAR Inc., with U.S. headquarters located in Buffalo, N.Y. (worldwide headquarters are in Heiden, Switzerland), manufactures precision fabrics from monofilaments for the screen printing, architecture and filtration markets. Its products are found in a variety of industries, including electronics, graphics, medical, automotive and food.
Most of its current technologies have come through exploring ways to service a request with an existing product, explains Peter Katcha, North American sales director of architectural products. If that product cannot provide the solution, the company investigates developing a new one.
For example, the company’s Tenara® fabric, acoustic and light transmissive ceiling systems, and fabric interlayers that reduce glare and thermal impact for glass curtain walls and facade applications, were sparked by a desire for more light-transmissive fabrics that could uniformly diffuse light without augmenting the colors, Katcha says. Many of its fabrics also incorporate an acoustic solution, delivering a dual-purpose product. The company also refined its materials to offer a range of VOC-free, ASTM E84 Class A fire-rated solutions. “These innovations were spawned from the market’s requirement for evolved fabric solutions,” Katcha says. “And typically, additional product benefits are discovered through the development process.”
Sustainability concerns inspire product development. Biobased Xorel, a plant-based, high-performance interior textile from Carnegie Fabrics, offers such an example. Launched in 2013, Biobased Xorel has a biobased content of approximately 60 to 80 percent, according to Cliff Goldman, president of the Rockville Centre, N.Y.-based manufacturer of textiles for interior furnishings. “We developed this in response to the need for building and design practices to become greener, and technology advancements allowed us to do so,” Goldman says. “This product has opened the minds of architects and designers who look to us for sustainable solutions.”
Paying attention to other industries and the fabrics they’re using also sparks ideas. A while back, Stevenson noticed that NASCAR had started using carbon graphite fiber for the bodies/shells of the racecars, beginning around 2005. He concluded that the commercial automotive sector would follow suit, which it began doing a few years later. Eastman Machine was able to move into this sector, thanks to the awareness of what was transpiring in NASCAR.
Innovation happens mainly by customer demand at Anchor, though employees have also made significant contributions. “The Fiesta® tent line, Century® tent line, and the new F3 and Aurora tent lines, as well as the FUNbrella® shade product and 5-Star safety pool covers are examples of innovations that were identified as needs by customers; were inspired by an employee synthesizing observations across the industries we serve; or an employee turning an observation about a totally unrelated industry into a meaningful product enhancement, new product or value-added service,” Fuerstenau says.
“Process matters to developing innovations,” he adds. “But engaged, motivated, disciplined and dedicated employees are the wellspring of innovations, because anyone can have a role in the next great idea.”
Keeping it burning
At Dowco Inc., employee engagement and contribution is encouraged at all levels and is fostered from the top down, says Charles Webster Jr., president and CEO. Headquartered in Manitowoc, Wis., the 93-year-old company started designing and manufacturing products for the tent and awning industry. Today, the cut-and-sew company services a variety of industries, providing products such as OEM covers, bimini tops, pontoon enclosures and hardware for the recreational marine market; and OEM motorcycle covers, leather saddlebags and luggage to the powersports market.
Several innovations have had a tremendous impact on the company. Consider DowcoLok® QR, the company’s first foray into marine hardware solutions. Designed to make the installation of boat and pontoon canopy tops easier and faster, the product, launched in 2008, resulted in significant time and labor savings for boat manufacturers, Webster says. More recent innovations include the EasyLift™ bimini top lift system, the RailLok™ HC and PX pontoon cover attachment systems and the Gunnel-Lok™ boat cover attachment system. “DowcoLok was launched during the recession,” Webster says. “It was a pretty dead market but it did make manufacturers aware of us and took us to the next level in the marine industry. We’re no longer recognized solely as a cut-and-sew manufacturer but as a partner in marine hardware innovation and beyond.”
Among other tactics, Dowco relies on its new-product development engineers, who sometimes get to take a hands-on approach. The company has a variety of boats, motorcycles—“all kinds of toys,” Webster says—and encourages the engineers to take the products out so they can identify improvement opportunities or come up with new ideas. “There isn’t a right or wrong way to innovate,” he says. “Perhaps it’s one employee who has the big idea and then another team that’s great at executing and taking it to the next level. The key is allowing innovation to develop organically, utilizing each employee’s strengths.”
AMI takes a team approach, although innovation—always market-driven—can come from anywhere in the company, Leonard says. Customer requests or employee ideas are submitted by business development to the innovation team, which analyzes and vets the potential project. Those that are accepted are assigned a priority level and the team creates a development path. “Without this close attention, projects can become stale and opportunities can be lost,” Leonard says. “This team has brought us into the 21st century by identifying and researching new materials, technologies and processes.”
With more than 150 product innovations—one of the latest being the Aurora sheer top tent incorporating the company’s WeatherShield™ technology that seals the walls to the top without compromising the tent’s aesthetics—Anchor Industries deploys a stage-gate development process to filter and prioritize new products, enhancements or services, Fuerstenau says. “Ideas are vetted through a due-diligence process where we scope costs and market pricing, assess the competitive landscape and determine potential customer value,” he says. “There are several gates where we meet and assess viability and market acceptance and then make a collaborative go/no-go decision if we continue as planned or modify the plan.”
Phases worked through include ideation, due diligence, feasibility, development, prototyping/beta testing, validation and launch/rollout. “It’s a best-practices approach to bringing innovative ideas—which can come from anywhere and anyone at any time—to fruition. It’s a measured approach consistent with our lean journey to eliminate waste and improve customer value,” Fuerstenau says.
Carnegie utilizes a creative design team that focuses on exploration, research and materials innovation, Goldman says. This team includes textile designers, weavers, painters and graphic designers. Other innovation-supporting strategies include having a flat hierarchy, and valuing and encouraging suggestions from all employees. “Our design team, sales reps and current/past clients all have a hand not only in the products we produce, but also in things like our new interactive website and design tool. Gathering thoughts across the board and being transparent means we’re comprehensive in our development,” Goldman says. “Good ideas are good ideas no matter where they come from and no one needs to own them.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.
What lies ahead
We asked several manufacturers and suppliers to tell us where they see their respective industries heading over the next five years.
We see all industries and especially the markets we serve becoming more sophisticated in how they implement and use technology such as CRM and ERP to conduct business and increase the speed of business. Likewise, the growing inclusion of online mobile and social media is influencing the process and pace by which purchasing decisions get made. We believe the changes and advancements in the industries we serve will evolve as much in the next five years as we’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years.
Mike Fuerstenau, director of marketing and product management, Anchor Industries Inc.
I see a continuing growth of industrial fabrics and with this usage a continual need for advanced cutting solutions for the rapidly expanding customer base in a diversity of industries.
Robert L. Stevenson, president/CEO, Eastman Machine Co.
Our industry will continue to be solution-oriented—textiles that not only look great but perform a function that enhances the performance of a space or have longevity and excellent maintenance characteristics.
Cliff Goldman, president, Carnegie Fabrics
Participation in recreational boating has been at all-time highs for the last several years and I feel these numbers will continue to stay strong and produce change as millennials enter into middle age. Millennials will significantly influence the marine market and accelerate changes of all sorts; we’ve already started to see this as they’ve come of age in other industries like automotive and tech.
Charles Webster Jr., president/CEO, Dowco Inc.
We see a resurgence of investment in the U.S. textile industry in the coming years, driven in part by the Department of Defense’s recent nomination of fiber and textiles as a Strategic Focus Area for funding and support through its ManTech [Manufacturing Technology] Program. The creation of a Manufacturing Innovations Institute for the textile sector would greatly increase domestic innovation and production to the supply chain for military and commercial use.
Kathie Leonard, president/CEO, Auburn Mfg. Inc.
2015 IFF Innovation award winner
The Industrial Fabrics Foundation (IFF) presented BondCote Corp., a Heytex Group company, with the 2015 Innovation Award at the IFAI Annual Meeting during IFAI Expo 2015 in Anaheim, Calif. BondCote was awarded a $5,000 prize for HEYtrax, a three-dimensionally woven structure with two base fabrics that are interlinked with spacer threads. When fully inflated, it has a flat, hard surface and can serve as a replacement for products made of rigid materials, allowing for improved, compact handling and increased portability. Ted Anderson, president and CEO, announced the company would give $1,500 back to IFF to put toward its education and research efforts.