Canadian Plastics

Wanted — ideas

Thoughts have consequences, a famous Russian once said. Indeed they do, but only if they are nurtured, honed and brought to life under the right conditions. Unfortunately, in today's business environm...

March 1, 2002   Canadian Plastics



Thoughts have consequences, a famous Russian once said. Indeed they do, but only if they are nurtured, honed and brought to life under the right conditions. Unfortunately, in today’s business environment, the first, knee-jerk reaction to a new idea or thought is very often, “That won’t work.”

Yet any company with aspirations to long-term and sustained growth should first and foremost be a manufacturer of ideas; secondly a manufacturer of product.

I was struck by the importance of ideas to product design and development while attending the recent International Housewares Show (see cover story, p. 24). While this show is held at Chicago’s McCormick Place, it is a long, long way from the hum, heat and injection molded pails of NPE. The exhibitors are mainly retailers and distributors of houseware products — a broad category that includes everything from kitchenware and electronic appliances to cleaning hardware and space organizers. The most important attendees are buyers of these products. The focus is not on what it takes to make products, but what it takes to sell them. I actually spent some time at the show with a “color consultant”, who tutored me on the most important color palettes (rose-mauves, beiges, olive greens are big) for the upcoming year.

One of highlights of the show was an area devoted to new products, many molded from plastic. The winning products in a student design competition were also displayed in a nearby section. There in short space, it was possible to gain some insight to the creative process that drives innovation and new product development. The acrylic “Salad Hands” were not only useful, but fun. The colorful polycarbonate stemmed wine glasses were not only handsome, but an improvement on other plastic patio-style glasses that tend to crack in the heat of dishwashers. The student designs were especially uninhibited by the notion of “you can’t do that”. My favorites were the toothbrush carrying case that doubles as a toothbrush holder, and the Cool Wheels lunchbox.

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The one thing all these products have in common is the identification of a need and the visualization of a design that incrementally improves the way that need is met. In the case of the lunchbox, the student’s research found a dissatisfaction with current “soft” lunch kits, in which food can be crushed and which are also difficult to clean… This isn’t revolutionary, but evolutionary design; the ability to see the new in everyday objects and our surroundings.

It is not surprising that students, schooled on the fundamentals of industrial design, can come up with fresh, novel approaches to product development, inexperienced as they might be. They are yet unencumbered by corporate-think, day-to-day operational responsibilities and imperious department managers who are seemingly able to stand apart from a company’s mandate to create and grow and, as a matter of principle, resist all change.

Another increasingly harmful influence on generating ideas comes in the form of lawyers and intellectual property laws. Ironically, what was (and still is) a critical part of protecting the entrepreneur and the creative process, has now in many cases become a barrier to ideas. While the plastics industry has not been immune to the sue/counter-sue approach to business, it has shown an admirable degree of flexibility and willingness to enter into license agreements, alliances, etc. in order to mutually gain from the innovation process.

Truly dynamic companies should keep an open mind about these and other ways to fully tap their invention potential. They should also have a room and a time set aside for blue-sky thinking at least once a week.

Michael LeGault, editor,

e-mail: mlegault@corporate.southam.ca


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