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Inventing Your Way Out of a Recession

(February 2011) posted on Thu Feb 03, 2011

Using research and development to thrive during economic downturns.

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By Craig Miller

COTS components can be combined or configured for a specific use. Our company’s most successful COTS developments have come from customer requests and have led to some really good runs of being the exclusive producer of specific products – all of which translates into a competitive advantage, with higher sales and better margins. Developing some of our most successful products has been as simple as taking a common base adhesive-backed vinyl and using an overlaminate not normally associated with that product. Another product combined a French tent fabric with a tweaked liquid overlaminate. In these instances, the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. Keep in mind that trial-and-error and field testing are the research components to developing COTS-based products. You must do sufficient testing to ensure that these products, when combined, will live up to the customer’s reasonable performance expectations.

It’s also important to remember that, just because an R&D project is beyond your financial or technical capabilities, doesn’t mean it's impossible. You simply need to find a strategic ally or partner for the project. Recently, our company was challenged to come up with a printed architectural glass. It needed to be a tempered safety glass with the image encapsulated, and it had to be viewed equally well from both sides and in either back- or front-lighting conditions. When an extensive search could not find a product that met these performance parameters, we realized it had to be developed. I had an idea how to do it, but it was beyond our company’s capability. After more than a month of phone calls and a failed attempt, I found a perfect ally in the owner of a glass company in Southern California. As a result, within two months of starting the project, our newly-developed Dual View glass was being installed in three Texas restaurants. Neither company could have created this on our own, but together we had just what was needed. And, by sharing the cost and effort, it didn’t place too big a burden on either of our companies. Because we’re first to market, our margin for Dual View glass is better than any of our core products. Best of all, our client is happy and his loyalty and confidence has been rewarded.

Such strategic alliances have been central to our other R&D projects, as well. For instance, manufacturers have formulated liquid laminates and inks for us. Also, our partners have shared the cost of developing products and protecting the intellectual property rights, provided the sales and marketing efforts, and conducted the field-testing. We have recently developed two technologies with a partner that, other than prototypes, we will not manufacture.

By the way: Past failures have taught me to be more cautious about selling untested products. I also occasionally say “no.” And we now require customers to take responsibility if they insist on us creating and providing them with new and cutting-edge developments.

Inventing amazing things

Is it worth the time, cost, and risk to invent your own future? Absolutely! But if you choose to go this route, keep in mind there are two worlds at play. The first is rational and can be under your control. It involves you and your team’s imagination, planning, timing, method, and implementation. The second world is intangible: luck. Most days, I would rather be lucky than good.

Although our own shop’s accomplishments have been modest, R&D has resulted in the greatest satisfaction, commercial success, and fun we’ve had in this business. I look at the developmental pioneers of our industry and recognize they have set a great example. Their ingenuity has ultimately benefited all of us. With a touch of creativity, planning, teamwork, effort, timing, and luck, amazing things can be invented.