If innovation is a key to growth and profitability because of the differentiation it can offer in our broadly commoditized industrial fabrics industry—one that for decades has been under strong pricing pressure from low-cost imports—then R&D is an essential component of a company’s toolbox for financial success.
My experience, however, coincides with the observation of MIT professor Dr. Yoel Fink, CEO of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), to the effect that investment in R&D in functional fabrics is very low. In this regard, consideration of the potential contributions of independent researchers and small science- and engineering-based startups seems to have been largely ignored by the industrial fabrics establishment.
Exploring commercial interests
Discussion on innovation is widespread in industry publications, as well as in our local newspapers. There are innumerable classroom training courses offered by state and local jurisdictions that lecture small businesses, independent professionals and startups on how to put together a business plan that will earn the support of investors. Invariably the innovator is warned that, for his better mousetrap to be commercially adopted, it has to have a market.
Implicit in this warning is that the burden of identifying or creating a need lies on the shoulders of the innovator providing the new product or process. But precisely because the knowledge being brought forward is new, the problems it could solve might be most apparent to the established participants in the trade, rather than to the inventor whose competence may well lie elsewhere.
In the specialty fabrics industry, we have yet to identify a portal that would allow the early dialogue between innovators and established market participants needed to facilitate the exploration of the potential commercial interest of new textile technologies—especially a portal that is unencumbered by the upfront academic and governmental formalities that can weigh heavily on typically underfunded individual inventors and early startups.
In my view, the potential synergies between the established industrial fabrics organizations and the purveyors of the new and different remain largely unexplored.
As an innovator, it has been disappointing to encounter little interest among significant established firms in going much beyond incremental changes in products and processes, even when the technical and marketing risks of the new technologies are demonstrably manageable.
It is illustrative to compare the degree of innovation in industrial fabrics with what occurs in the apparel industry. Whether in sports, intimate wear, outerwear or the fashion markets, the successful introduction of products with new functionalities and/or aesthetics have been numerous, frequent and profitable. In contrast, over the past decades fundamental change in the basics of an industrial fabric—its fibers and how they are put together—have been relatively few.
Undoubtedly the greater nimbleness of the apparel sector is helped by its lower cost of change, the shorter lifetimes of its products, and that industry’s somewhat less constraining specifications and standards. But contributing to the slower pace of innovation in industrial fabrics has been a lack of full recognition of how a step-change in performance, brought about by new materials and designs, can be a competitive advantage, improve profitability, and provide the differentiation required to maintain both of them.
The belief that an innovative apparel or home furnishing fabric can create its own demand is ingrained in the entire supply chain from stylist to retailer. This frame of mind is absent in much of the industrial fabrics world. It is as if our industry has lost the conviction that it is precisely in moving well away from the routine that a product or process gains profitability against domestic and foreign competition. True innovation “de-commoditizes” an offering.
An interaction between an established producer and an innovator that is well along in applied research, which begins with the producer asking “Is there a need for the improvement your innovation offers?” and continues with the innovator answering “Yes, but the need is one that may not be widely recognized or requires further validation in the markets that you serve,” too often ends with the innovator encouraged to seek support from the U.S. government. The success of applications seeking funding for early innovative technologies of all kinds that originate in science- and engineering-based startups and small businesses is about 10 percent at the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. These are the destinations most frequently suggested to independent industrial fabric innovators.
Companies that have successfully implemented game-changing technology can attest to the fact that the demonstration of its value and the harnessing of its profitability required marrying the knowledge competency of the inventor with the manufacturing and marketing capability of the producer. Fairly valuing the relative contributions of inventor and producer would seem an obvious basis for a partnership.
There is no shortage of public and private organizations that broker the transfer of technology from a party for which it has no further use to another that believes it can employ it profitably. Often, however, the technologies for sale are the result of development cycles that have been interrupted, perhaps frozen for some time, due to lack of commercial interest. They are made available for sale only after careful consideration to prevent adverse effects on the seller’s competitiveness.
What I’m suggesting here instead is an open forum that would be informative both about current development initiatives that could suggest new applications and on market challenges that would encourage the search for specific solutions. Such a meeting between competencies and capabilities would serve both parties. To the innovator, it would help rationalize his efforts by providing him, early in the development cycle, either some assurance of market receptivity or an indication that a change in development direction might be of more commercial interest. To the manufacturer, it would give an equally early view of what new products and processes might be made commercial with further work, or whether a change in the direction of ongoing research and development could yield nearer-term commercial success.
This transparent review of an industry’s short- and long-term needs and wants from its suppliers is not new. The U.S. government and many corporations (notably the aircraft, aerospace and defense industries) do this routinely for the benefit of all parties. What I’m suggesting is a similar dynamic interaction for our industry. At present, the communication that is sought often occurs too late, with the innovator well into his program and often at the point of having almost exhausted his financial resources. The manufacturer, in turn, is frequently presented with options too narrow and rigidly defined, lacking the flexibility to adapt to solving the real-world market problems he faces. Had the interaction occurred earlier, the new technology might have been able to change market direction as needed.
Organizations like IFAI should consider facilitating the desired innovation revival with an agile, open-minded and welcoming forum where meetings could take place at an early stage of new product and process development. With proper regard to intellectual property considerations, innovators and producers could meet to give serious consideration to new technology for the new business opportunities it might offer, and the business problems it might solve.
Donald L. Sturgeon, Ph.D., is owner and president of Multifibers LLC in Wilmington, Del.