Special section – Creating the future in design

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2009

Professor Simon Bolton, Director of the Centre for Competitive Creative Design at Cranfield University, UK, explores how to navigate the current economic storm through resilient design-led innovation.

Many companies face the challenge of remaining competitive in difficult conditions. To achieve this and sustain growth, it is increasingly necessary to produce products and services that exceed functional expectations and meet the emotional needs of consumers and markets.

Design-led innovation is often cited as important in sustaining business success. The UK’s Design Council states that companies can achieve, on average, a £2.25 return on every pound spent on design (Design Returns – A Review of National Design Strategy 2004-08). They have also established that, compared to every pound spent solving a problem in product design at the outset, it costs £10 to tackle it in development and £100 to rectify it after the item has been launched on the market.

Design contributes to business success in five key areas – improving the quality and service of products, increasing turnover and profits, boosting communication with customers, improving the image of an organisation, and aiding the development of new products and services. Design-led companies have seen improvements in financial performance, defensible innovation and the flow of new products/services. These firms become more competitive and resilient in key markets.

Spotting opportunities

From these positive forecasts you would anticipate that design would be on the horizon of many companies, however, dark clouds persist. The Cox Review (2005), conducted by Sir George Cox, Chairman of the Design Council, argues that many companies do not recognise opportunities or know how to pursue them.

There are a number of areas that often restrict manufacturing SMEs from becoming more competitive and resilient. Many misunderstand and/or have difficulty communicating their company’s strengths. This is repeatedly reflected in an inability to identify and prioritise internal capabilities from which to launch and commercialise products.

Too frequently we see an over emphasis on price driven innovation, underpinned by an absence of market-based procedures for evaluating new and existing opportunities. Many are engaged in a constant struggle to identify which issues/parameters to compete on, other than price. The inability to connect with customers is frequently evidenced by an over emphasis on ‘me too’ products lacking unique features and/or differentiation against competitors. An over-emphasis on price often leaves companies vulnerable to simple competitor actions (price reduction) and fickle consumers who brand swap purely on price, rather than quality and value.

The Half Step Innovation (HSi) process was developed by the Centre for Competitive Creative Design at Cranfield University, UK, to provide a repeatable and practical tool to help SME manufacturing companies build resilient design-led innovation. It focuses on connecting company capabilities with new and existing customer opportunities. Placing the emphasis on an external focus helps build confidence in connecting them to the market, and creates strong brand positions and differentiated product opportunities.

Packing a punch

UK-based Nelson Packaging Ltd, a manufacturer of recycled carrier bags, had, like many organisations, a wealth of hidden innovation that was not fully exploited. The HSi process helped the company translate its material and process capabilities by identifying its strengths in four key areas – manufacturing processes, material blending, environmentally friendly materials and water-based print technologies. This enabled the firm to build brand differentiation through its core technical capabilities – production and water-based printing. Prior to the HSi process, these areas were not significantly leveraged to deliver identifiable added value to the customer base. Identifying the profiles and characteristics of its customers and markets, and then positioning the company’s capabilities more effectively, achieved the connection.

Implementing the HSi process helped to achieve a 32% growth in turnover in 18 months (£1.92m). More significantly, the ability to demonstrate environmental credentials has enabled Nelson Packaging to successfully navigate changing customer and market trends in retail packaging.

Further information: Simon Bolton