The key to compressing innovation cycles

Posted on 26 Sep 2019 by Jonny Williamson

Innovation is the lifeblood of any business, but especially so for manufacturers. But how do organisations streamline their R&D processes, break down silos across their NPI teams, and create cultures of true innovation and collaboration?

A select group of UK manufacturing leaders recently gathered at Jaguar Land Rover Solihull to meet and discuss what constitutes innovation best-practice today and how best to leverage the next breakthrough in New Product Introduction (NPI).

New Product Development Doodle Concept NPI NPD Innovation - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The questions anchored an exclusive roundtable discussion held as part of The Manufacturer Director’s Forum, and co-hosted with Sage – a leading Business Cloud Enterprise Management provider.

The conversation underlined the vital role innovation plays and, crucially, that everyone within an organisation (including wider stakeholders) must be clear on how that is defined and delivered.

Rather than being the responsibility of solely one dedicated team, innovation and continuous improvement should permeate every task undertaken by your employees – cross-functionally and at every level.

In support of that, it was unanimously agreed that the most successful projects have a clearly communicated outcome and are tied to a direct want or requirement from a customer/marketplace.

The discussion sat at the centre of packed agenda which included an overview of the UK’s industrial sector care-of The Manufacturer’s Henry Anson, as well as a briefing from special guest Dr Katy Milne – chief engineer on the Manufacturing Technology Centre’s Digital Reconfigurable Additive Manufacturing for Aerospace (DRAMA) project.

Following the discussion, the gathering went behind the scenes of Solihull’s new cutting-edge production facility to witness what it takes to bring to life some of the most technologically advanced cars in the world.

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Innovation methodologies

Dr Milne opened proceedings by highlighting the importance of creating a client friendly environment, supported by a flexible digital architecture for data storage and analysis.

Her work at the MTC aims to encourage UK aerospace suppliers to better collaborate with each other and Tier 1 manufacturers, and to understand the benefits of adopting additive manufacturing techniques.

The current focus, Dr Milne noted, was on composite materials and what she termed “novel manufacturing” such as the use of digital tools for quality inspection and digital simulations to mitigate the high cost of testing.

Addressing questions about the MTC’s methodologies, Dr Milne revealed that agile was used where appropriate, i.e. development and testing happening concurrently, which Dr Milne regards as being particularly beneficial for getting a new product to market quickly and efficiently.

Her comments led to a discussion around the benefits of agile, scrum and sprint methodologies, with the consensus that there is no one-size-fits-all.

“Creating an innovative and collaborative environment is as unique as the business and products it touches,” is how one attendee summarised the decision.

Innovation Scrum Methodology Cycle - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The right mix

The self-described “board-level odd-jobs man” for a world-leading wire joining manufacturer explained how his organisation doesn’t operate under a standard innovation model. His business is guided by four project classifications, all of which should be part of a “balanced innovation portfolio”:

  • Paint by Numbers – incremental changes to make minor improvements to an established product
  • Fog Work – a step into the unknown, seeking the next big thing without a guide to follow
  • Movie – a big production that harnesses the talent, technology and processes you already possess; finding applications for your expertise
  • Quests – you know you need to do something in this area, but some exploration is required; this is where you can a make a step-change that will drive business growth

His comments around “stepping into the unknown” prompted the chairman of a specialist torque tools businesses to note how “the evolution of the torque tools market has led to traditional mechanical businesses having to grapple with software challenges that their forebears would never have dreamt of.”

“We’ve developed deep expertise in mechanical and electrical systems, but less so in software. We are having to recruit a special breed of engineers to test our software, those with a completely different mindset and approach to our product developers,” he noted.

His organisation’s primary products all require different manufacturing techniques and processes, and once a product has been launched, the improvement of it and innovation becomes the responsibility of the production team.

That strategy conforms more to the ‘paint by numbers’ approach, and while the organisation does have a small innovation team dedicated to NPI, getting multiple departments aligned has reportedly proved to be a hindrance to the procurement process associated with NPI.

The point resonated with the head of production at an IT hardware manufacturer, who noted that several of his organisation’s products had been launched late – occasionally significantly so – because of internal politics.

His previous organisation had a dedicated NPI team, but that too experienced challenges to align purchasing, supply chain operations and production, he added.

Leadership Employee Enagement Collaboration Innovation - Stock-Image

Customer involvement

The challenge of conflicting priorities and objectives, particularly around finance and purchasing, sparked a lively debate.

The managing director of a specialist automotive design and production company had seen some success by having the initial costing and sourcing responsibilities tasked to R&D, and having the production team manage supplier relationships post-launch.

The operations director of a biophysics solutions manufacturer subsequently commented on the disconnect between marketing teams assessing the marketplace for potential future opportunities, and engineering teams focused on continuous improvement and the stated needs of customers.

The wire joining manufacturer has recognised and addressed this disconnect by making it a KPI to spend at least 20 days a year engaging directly with customers.

“We run ‘juicing’ sessions with customers, giving them the opportunity to articulate their problems and requirements,” he noted. “Having dedicated time allocated for customer-facing collaboration allows us to better ideate and arrive at solutions together.”

Several attendees noted how customers were viewed as part of their organisation, and all agreed that engaging directly with customers not only accelerated NPI, but created a stronger, “stickier” relationship.

However, the global engineering director for a world leader in motion and fluid control technologies, noted that some organisations are wary of “potential reputational damage” by allowing customers to become too involved in proceedings.

CROP Great idea concept innovation NPI NPD - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Iain Lewis, solutions consulting manager at Sage, concluded: “In summary, the need is clear that organisations, in order to survive in their differing competitive environments, have got to be innovative and focused on customer value.

“That innovation shouldn’t be focused on just the product, it should be focused on the outcomes that the customer requires and must involve everyone from the industrial designer and finance clerk to board members. They all need to be innovative in their particular areas of expertise to enable the organisation to grow and compete effectively.

“Technology on its own doesn’t enable innovation. The users of the technology, through organisational culture and drive, can utilise that technology to more drive innovation to the end-customer.”

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*All images courtesy of Depositphotos