Canadian Plastics

What does “innovation” really mean?

By Rebecca Reid, managing editor   



These days the word "innovation" gets carelessly thrown around like an old baseball, and more often than not it misses the strike zone....

These days the word “innovation” gets carelessly thrown around like an old baseball, and more often than not it misses the strike zone.

The word itself has suffered the fate of so many other too often-repeated catchphrases: It starts to lose its meaning.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, innovation means “the action or process of innovating.” At that point the marketing gurus evidently closed their dictionaries but it would have been more helpful had they bothered to read on down to the second definition: “A new method, idea, product, etc.”

Okay, that’s slightly more insightful, but rarely is an explanation given as to HOW to innovate, or how much money innovation costs or where innovation should even start. That’s because innovation is not a clear strategy — it encompasses endless possibilities.

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While inventing a new product is an innovative action, it only scratches the surface of the word’s meaning, and many seem to get bogged down by that definition.

Michael Reedy, of Reedy International Corp. in Keyport, N.J., told me the most successful plastics processors these days no longer rely on machinery vendors for cutting-edge technology; they’re adding or developing the functions and devices they need themselves.

One of his clients in foam pipe extrusion market built its own tooling in-house — as many do in this niche, he said — and traded one of its dies with a machinery firm for an extrusion machine at a drastically discounted price.

Not too long afterwards, the machinery firm came to market with a brand new, cutting-edge die for foam pipe extrusion. Reedy said he was surprised since the die was used for manufacturing the processor’s most successful product.

The processor explained the die was 10 years old, and the machinery vendor still hadn’t developed a die lip allowing it to be used with other brands of machinery, limiting its market potential.

The point, Reedy told me, is that 10 years ago the machinery vendors were the purveyors of the latest and greatest technology, but today it’s the processors that are on the bleeding-edge, tweaking and designing their own devices when those on the market just don’t suit their needs. This way, they can ensure a unique product.

Sure that costs money, but the government provides tax credits for R&D, and you’re more likely to get money back if the experiment fails, Brian Hartman, president of R&D Funding Management Inc. in Hamilton, Ont., told me. It’s when the project becomes successful that the tax credits stop.

So unless you want to play catch-up with your competitors, and especially if you operate in a niche market, relying solely on the machinery vendors just won’t cut it.

Next time a vendor tells you its product will help you innovate, get them to put it in the context of your business needs. If you can’t buy what you need off-the-shelf, then it’s time to start taking stock of the skills you have in-house to see if you can do it yourself.

And if you’re the guilty party, don’t just trot out the old clichs about “the value of innovation”. Instead, provide your client with solid examples; better yet, offer development services at prices small-to-medium-sized businesses can afford, because no one is looking for a new catchphrase, they’re looking for results.

e-mail: rreid@canplastics.com

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