We always eat elephants.. is a surprising claim made by Carlos Broens founder and head of a successful tool making and precision engineering firm in Australia with an enviable growth record. Broens Industries is a small/medium sized company of 130 employees which survives in a highly competitive world by exporting over 70% of its products and services to technologically demanding firms in aerospace, medical and other advanced markets. The quote doesn’t refer to strange dietary habits but to their confidence in taking on the challenge normally seen as impossible or firms of our size – a capability which is grounded in a culture of innovation in products and the processes which go to produce them.
At the other end of the scale spectrum Kumba Resources is large South African mining company which makes another dramatic claim — we move mountains. In their case the mountains contain iron ore and their huge operations require large scale excavation and restitution of the landscape afterwards. Much of their business involves complex large scale machinery and their abilities to keep it running and productive depend on a workforce able to contribute their innovative ideas on a continuing basis.
Innovation is driven by the ability to see connections, to spot opportunities and to take advantage of them. When the Tasman Bridge collapsed in Hobart Tasmania in 1975 Robert Clifford was running a small ferry company saw an opportunity to capitalize on the increased demand for ferries and to differentiate his by selling drinks to the thirsty cross city commuters. The same entrepreneurial flair later helped him build a company — In cat – which pioneered the wave piercing designs which helped the capture over half the world market for fast catamaran ferries. Continuing investment in innovation has helped this company from a relatively isolated island build a keep niche is highly competitive international military and civilian markets.
But innovation is not just about opening up new markets – it can also offer new ways of serving established and mature ones. Despite a global shift in textile and clothing manufacture towards developing countries the Spanish company, Inditex (through as retail outlets under various names including Zara) have pioneered a highly flexible fast turnaround clothing operations with cover 2000 outlets in 52 countries . It was founded by Amancio Ottega Gaona who set up a small operation in the west of Spain in La Coruna – a region not previously noted for textile production –and the first store opened there in 1975. central to the Inditex philosophy is close linkage between design, manufacture and retailing and their network of stores constantly feds back information about trends which are used to generate new designs They also experiment with new ideas directly on the public , trying samples of cloth or design and quickly getting back indications of what is going to catch on. Despite there global orientation most manufacturing is still done in Spain, and they have managed to reduce the turnaround time between a trigger signal for an innovation and responding to it so a round 15 days.
Of course technology often plays a key role enabling radical new options. Magink is a company set up in 2000 by a group of Israeli engineers and now part of the giant Mitsubishi concern. Its business is in exploiting the emergency field of digital ink technology – essentially enabling paper like display technology for indoor and outdoor displays. These have a number of advantages over other displays such as liquid crystal low cost high viewing angles and high visibility even in full sunlight. One of their major new lines of development is in advertising billboards – a market worth $5bn in the USA alone – where the prospect of programmable hoardings is now opened up. Magink enables high resolution images which can be changed much more frequently than conventional paper advertising and permit billboard site owners to offer variable price time slots much as television does not present.