Product Innovation: Why Innovate?
This article explores equipment innovation and the reasons why the ability to innovate separates the great companies from the rest. It was written by David Ayling, the former owner of load cell manufacturer Straightpoint, and now president of FAD Equipment Store.
It’s interesting that when I got to thinking about this blog, I Googled ‘innovation’ to see what would come up. The first definition I found was as follows:
‘The action or process of innovating
…innovation is crucial to the continuing success of any organization’.
Actually, it doesn’t have to be. If you’ve got a solid, market-fit product and have found a way to deliver it in abundance at favorable cost, you haven’t got to innovate at all. Throw in an eye for systemization, sprinkle it with some scalability, and you’ve gone a step further. I’ve often said that you don’t need to stress about inventing something; if you can do what you do differently or better, you might be able to make a buck or two.
But there is some truth in the statement and it’s the innovative businesses that I’ve always enjoyed working in and leading, which is where I’ll focus this article.
The best companies are good at innovating.
Recently, I was invited to take questions from a panel of researchers that was compiling a body of work for an undisclosed client. They wanted to know about the material handling industry’s key players, the state of the market, and what new products have caught the eye. We started talking about innovations and I was perhaps guilty of suggesting that the sector isn’t the most innovative. It’s true to the point that the force of gravity hasn’t changed—and never will—and there’s only so much a master link or chain sling can evolve beyond material properties and maybe strength to weight ratios, but more than the industry’s nuts and bolts, it’s an increasingly innovative, technological, and even automated space in which to work.
From its most popular load cell, the Radiolink plus, to the Clamp On Line Tensiometer (COLT), a suite of apps, and everything in between, the catalog is built on innovation. The HHP Bluetooth app connects to Bluetooth-enabled load cells with a wireless range of over 320 ft. That’s innovation. That’s awesome.
Crosby Straightpoint's Radiolink plus remains its best-selling load cell.
Reminded of that undeniable status as an innovative pioneer, I thought about the makeup of the company and what it was that enabled Straightpoint to innovate so efficiently. After all, we didn’t have anyone sat in a white coat in a laboratory with one of those fancy job titles on a shiny sign on the door. You know the ones:
- Innovation and Growth Manager
- Innovation Research Manager
- Product Innovation Manager
You can add ‘Senior’ to all of them if you want.
No disrespect to anyone doing these jobs, but I wonder what an Innovation and Growth Manager or Product Innovation Manager has on their desk on a Monday morning. At Straightpoint, for example, everyone was responsible for innovation and anyone who had an idea about improvement or invention, was encouraged to table it. I wasn’t concerned if that came from my Number Two or someone in the machine shop with an idea to reduce the number of screws in a product from six to five.
Everyone at a company should be encouraged to look for innovations.
We can break down the way most companies innovate into two main categories:
- Continuous product improvement
- Completely new innovations
Let’s stick with Crosby Straightpoint. Where continuous product improvement was driven from within the walls of the company, completely new innovations most frequently came back up through our channel partners from the coalface.
To the first point, consider that innovation doesn’t always have to lead to tangible benefit with the tool in hand. It might be that innovation leads to more economical manufacturing processes that result in better production lines or reduce the necessity to stock certain parts. Sometimes, there is innovation in a product that nobody knows is there away from the workshop. It’s all innovation. And all good organizations do this.
To the second point, I remember Pieter van Duijn, commercial director at Van Gool, for example, regularly calling with questions that had been put to him from the point of use:
- Have you got this product in a higher capacity?
- This product does this, but can it be enhanced to do that?
- Can the product be made lighter to enable it to do this?
- It’d be good if that product could be made explosion proof—is that possible?
- And so on…
The reason Pieter kept calling was because we always answered, and we followed up. Other dealers knew it too.
In one standout example, a channel partner was at our HQ with us, and a conversation arrived at the limitations of a certain product. We had the tools handy so went ahead and made a quick prototype to explore the theory of those limitations being removed. The tests we did that afternoon went well and it ended up becoming a load monitoring tool still in use today. We didn’t need an Innovation Research Manager; we needed a dynamic culture that meant everyone showed a bias towards action. If we had to pick someone in each instance to play quarterback or take things off the whiteboard and put them onto the shop floor, we did. It didn’t matter if we couldn’t always find a solution to work; the point is that we always tried. And often succeeded.
It’s worth emphasizing the role of people at modern companies, even technology-driven ones. If we accept my earlier point as fact, that completely new innovations most frequently come back up through channel partners from the point of application, it’s necessary to have the right people in positions that face customers and users. I remember how good David Mullard and Wayne Wille, both now business development managers at Crosby, were at taking information and turning it into clear instructions upon which we could innovate. Top guys, both.
Wayne Wille (left) and David Mullard—no doubt planning the launch of another load monitoring innovation.
Channel partner model
As ideas become prototypes and prototypes become marketable products, the dealer or channel partner model really helps. Then it’s less about the manufacturer saying, look at us, pay us more money. Luke Habza, of Equipment Corps, is a good example. Luke would be one of the first people I’d tell about a new concept because he’d always look at the opportunity versus the challenge. Comments Luke would make that you should listen out for when introducing your own innovations include:
- Awesome, I know just the market.
- When can you get me a demo kit? This week?
- I’m going to tell Person A, B, and C about it today.
- If it can be used here, I wonder if it’ll be just as effective there.
- Ok, it’s for that type of application, so I’m going to tell my guys in these markets about it.
- When can I get stock? How much?
- Are you planning versions in higher capacities or with longer wireless range?
- That’s cool—thanks for telling me.
Straightpoint was very fortunate to work with a few Lukes, but there were one or two folks out there who didn’t embrace such speed of change. Honestly, they’re not the partners you’re looking for given that they’re the point of contact for many of the people buying the kit. Challenge your channel partners to pick up your innovations and run with them.
"Hey, I've got a great product idea" — David Ayling.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that launching new products is easy. I remember telling people that the Radiolink plus was suited to any load monitoring application, but that didn’t really help dealers close in on a market. The innovations that really get the blood racing are things like COLT that I referenced above. Tower erection, maintenance, and service professionals, and those who needed to measure tension on static lines, were a clear target market. We knew the dealers who engaged with stakeholders in those sectors and proceeded accordingly.
Crosby Straightpoint's Clamp On Line Tensiometer (COLT).
You can’t write a blog about technological innovation without talking about backward compatibility, which is a constant challenge for all companies at the sharp-end of their sectors. Backward compatibility—call it backwards compatibility if you prefer—is part of a product that allows for interoperability with an older legacy system. Modifying a system in a way that does not allow such backward compatibility can be called ‘breaking’ backward compatibility. Forward compatibility is something else—that’s where a design has a roadmap for compatibility with future standards and products.
- (Planned obsolescence isn’t a dark art I’ve ever engaged with and is probably a blog for another day.)
As referenced, the updated Crosby Straightpoint HHP Bluetooth app connects wirelessly to up to four Bluetooth load cells on a single smartphone, versus one with the previous version, following demand from customers. The speed of change in the Bluetooth sector is something that the team must be constantly mindful of.
State-of-the-art vs. vintage
There’s a juxtaposition about my post Straightpoint ownership years, in that I remain obsessed with innovation and cutting-edge technology—just look at this equipment store’s product range—yet I’ve also revisited a lifelong passion for vintage products that have stood the test of time—motorbikes, especially.
One of my favorite industrial innovations is the Green Monster range of pull testers, which is optimized for pad eye (lifting lug) testing. Also of Australia, I like the GRIPPS catalog of products that assist industry in tackling one of the biggest hazards facing the modern workforce: dropped objects. The product mix, innovative designs, and strategic partnership programs have been developed out of recognized needs to stop falling objects. It is supplied here in the states by P&I Supply and has a long-term future on this store. Watch this space.
One of the best consumer innovations I’ve seen for a long time is Sky Q, a subscription-based television and entertainment service operated by British satellite television provider Sky, as a part of its operations in Austria, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and in the UK. The name also refers to the Sky Q set-top box. The concept features live interaction with tv (pause, rewind, etc.); more recording capacity than you could realistically watch; HDR 4K video playback with a slick modern interface; multi-box, multi-room streaming; Dolby Atmos audio; and integrated online services like Netflix, YouTube, and Apple TV Plus. It’s as innovative as a lounge room feature can get.
Vespa is an Italian luxury brand of scooter manufactured by Piaggio.
But I still appreciate products that remain current even though they were brought to market many years ago. My son, Isaac, and I even refurbish, ride, and sell Vespas, an Italian luxury brand of scooter manufactured by Piaggio; and Lambrettas, an equally prestigious brand of scooter, initially manufactured in Milan, Italy, by Innocenti.
So, I guess it’s true that the best innovations never get old. And our ability to innovate will always separate the great from the rest.