Why innovation remains key in the economic downturn

Posted on 4 Jun 2009 by The Manufacturer

It might sound controversial, but today’s climate really is the ideal – and necessary – time to push your innovation agenda, as Richard Blatcher explains

The current economic downturn has sent the UK’s manufacturing output into a spiral of decline. A recent CBI employers’ group survey revealed that 67% of manufacturers say that their order books are below normal, while only eight per cent say they are above normal, equalling the record low reached during the manufacturing-led recession of the early 1980s.

At the same time, new labour market figures recently revealed that the number of jobs in UK manufacturing dipped under 2.75m for the first time during the three months to March. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics issued in May 2009 showed there were 2.73m jobs in manufacturing, down 160,000 on a year ago.

If the past is anything to go by, battening down the hatches and waiting for better times is a common reaction to threats of turbulence. It’s difficult to consider the broader outlook when the financial director has begun to scrutinise expense claims and change the subject whenever investing in anything other than the essential is mentioned.

After all, the thinking goes, ‘our best-selling product is tried and tested and will keep our salesforce busy for a few more years. Let’s not stick our heads above the parapet with new ideas at the moment.’

In fact, businesses can go one of two ways when the general economic situation starts to blow cold. The first response is to cut everything from R&D to office overheads. The second, more considered approach, is to continue to think strategically and not get cold feet.

This involves investing in ways to get to the most innovative and best-designed products as quickly as possible – and to ensure they can be brought to market faster than the competition, too. Key assets such as the latest technology must be protected to ensure a company can keep delivering new products to customers, when others – who have cut back too keenly on staff and resources – can’t.

There is also a further dilemma. Do you go for volume, begin to play the discount game and keep slashing margins? Or should you keep up the quality and make the assumption that some – albeit fewer – customers will always pay a premium for good, original design, backed by reliable, fast delivery and thorough customer care?

There is no doubt that the current global climate favours the braver approach. International markets are capricious, wanting a continuous stream of new and creative new products. And that is what British manufacturing has been shown to do best.

So how do manufacturers make the savings in one area to enable them to innovate in another? Adopting best practices in digital design is one option that can fire up a new innovative way of working – here are a few guidelines:

Extend the digital pipeline
Starting to define a concept with a few doodles on the back of an envelope is one thing – but drafting this in 2D first and only then modelling it in 3D is another. The sooner and easier ideas can be captured on screen the better, even if you then go through dozens of iterations after that. Imagine the time taken to make the same number of drawings.

Further downstream, if designs can be handed over to manufacturing in digital form they are more likely to keep their original integrity and result in accurate, reliable products.

Embrace the digital prototype
Maximising the use of digital rather than physical prototypes is key to innovation. At the concept stage, early but well-informed decisions can be made about colour and form with multiple alternatives considered by the design team, colleagues and clients where appropriate.

During engineering, stress and strengths can be tested, mechanical movement simulated and the performance of multiple materials analysed. In this way, aesthetic ideas can be made practical, ensuring well before the physical prototype stage that an idea will work and prove reliable. Importantly, the latest technology enables this to be done in hours or days, rather than weeks.

Discover data management
Interestingly, product innovation doesn’t mean continually re-inventing the wheel. When legacy design data is held in a secure but easily accessible central store, components and even whole assemblies can be re-used to help create new products. In this way, firms can build on their strengths rather than continuously start from square one.

Earlier to market
Product innovation is only valuable, of course, if the end result is commercially viable. Digital prototypes can be used to market a product before it is actually made. Images can be used for brochures, websites and other marketing collateral, as well as for focus groups and even one-to-one customer meetings.

Once a customer has shown interest in a product in digital prototype form, it can easily be refined and tailored according to feedback. Yet, because customers have been shown an accurate representation, rather than just an impression, there will be no misunderstandings and fewer hold-ups later on in the process.

Faster to market
Leading manufacturers are well aware of this. A report by analysts Aberdeen Group recently stated that best-in-class manufacturers typically build just half the number of physical prototypes as the average, thereby halving development costs. Consequently, they get products to market up to 58 days faster on average, often reaping the rewards of first-to-market advantage.

There’s no doubt that the fighting spirit of UK manufacturers will be tested in the coming months. However, despite the challenges, the industry is right to remain defiant. There are ways to continue to innovate without increasing overheads and best-in-class players are already benefiting from them. It just takes a vision, a pioneering spirit and, probably, nerves made from increasingly expensive steel.