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Think Sideways – Don’t constrain your innovation.

Think Sideways – Don’t constrain your innovation.

3M has a well-deserved reputation as an innovative company.

innovative compnaies

The invention of the Post-it note is perhaps the most famous story of what 3M does, but there are numerous other examples of how it creates new things in new ways.

In my book “The Prisoner and the Penguin”, I told the story of how a banjo-playing, engineering school dropout and 3M employee called Dick Drew created masking tape.

Two tone car4.1.1

Two tone cars were all the rage in the 1920s but were causing a serious problem for mechanics in body shops as they tried to create this effect. The problem was the masking – no one knew how to do this well, so most improvised. They glued old newspapers to the body and windows with library pastes, homemade glues or surgical adhesive tape. While this helped create a sharp demarcation between the two colours, the adhesives stuck so firmly that trying to remove them often ruined the paint job.

Drew vowed to solve the problem and finally did using ingenuity and a little bit of cheek to get around the procurement people and get his prototype made. The answer was in effect sandpaper without the sand and a sticky but not permanent adhesive.

This was the end of my story but in fact was really just a chapter in the bigger book of 3M innovations.

Drew

 

One of the next chapters features Drew again. Working on another project and now technical director of 3M’s Product Fabrication Laboratory, he was immediately intrigued when one of his team showed him a sample of a new moisture-proof packaging material from Dupont – Cellophane.

 

cellulose tape

He saw the potential for it as a new backing for masking tape and despite having to reformulate the adhesive used, he and his team went onto produce what was originally called Scotch® Brand Cellulose Tape, was later renamed Scotch® Transparent Tape and nowadays is known simply as Scotch® Tape.

So ended another chapter, but the 3M’s innovation book continued as Larry Wendling, VP of Corporate Research 3M explained in ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’ by Jonah Lehrer.

“You might think an idea is finished, that there’s nothing else to do with it, but then you talk to somebody else in some other field. And your little idea inspires them, so they come up with a brand-new invention that inspires someone else. That, in a nutshell, is our (3M’s) model”

Masking Tape bumped into panelling and this led to the development of sound dampening panels. The idea was based on the adhesives used in industrial strength masking tape.

This in turn led to the development of another product for another market – Scotch-Weld a super-strong adhesive foam.

The adhesive from Scotch® Tape was the basis for much of the smart screen technology and coatings and also the more specialist light refracting films invented by 3M.

As Wendling aptly concludes, “The lesson is that the tape business isn’t just about tape.”

IN SPITE OF NOT BECAUSE OF …

IN SPITE OF NOT BECAUSE OF …

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Today Coca Cola is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest brands, not only present, but successful in hundreds of countries. It wasn’t however always like that.

Up until the late 1930s, Coca-Cola’s only real international success was in Germany where sales records were being set and beaten year after year. By 1939, Coca-Cola had 43 bottling plants and more than 600 local distributors there but storm clouds and even worse Stormtroopers were massing.

A trade embargo was imposed which put a halt to the supply of the key ingredients necessary for the production of Coca-Cola syrup.

To potentially further complicate things the man who had been in charge of Coca-Cola’s operations in Germany, American-born Ray Powers, died of injuries received in an automobile accident in 1938.

German-born Max Keith, took over. He was committed to trying to keep production going and keeping people employed. He decided to create to try and create a new product but knew that would only get access to what he later called the “leftovers of leftovers”.

Using whey and apple pomace – the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of fruit that had already been pressed – he and his team created a a light-colored drink that resembled ginger ale.

raymond-loewy_fanta_bottle_1960The new product needed a name and so Keith called together some employees for a competition. He told them to let their Fantasie [Geman for fantasy] run wild. Upon hearing that, veteran salesman Joe Knipp immediately suggested “Fanta”.

Fanta was a success despite its flavour varying depending on what fruits and other leftovers were available. In its earliest incarnations, the drink was sweetened with saccharin, but by 1941 Keith and is team were allowed to use 3.5% beet sugar in their recipes. In 1943, 3 million cases of Fanta were sold enough to keep the plants operating and Coca-Cola people employed.

While all this was happening executives at Coca-Cola in Atlanta did not know if Keith was still working for the company or for the Nazis. Communication with him was of course impossible.

max keithAfter the war though an investigator commissioned by Coca-Cola examined Max Keith’s actions and they were delighted to hear that Keith had not only never been a Nazi, he’d repeatedly rebuffed pressure to become one, suffered hardships because of those refusals. He had also resisted the temptation of selling Fanta under his own name.

It is now recognised that it was thanks largely to Keith’s efforts that Coca-Cola was able to re-establish production in Germany almost immediately after World War II.

As for Fanta it was discontinued but as competition in new flavours increased in the 1950s, it was relaunched in 1955. Nowadays, while Orange is the main variety, there are more than 100 flavours worldwide.

And the moral is innovation is sometimes driven by necessity not desire. What challenges are you facing which could inspire your next innovation?

The Wasp

The Wasp

“It looks like a wasp!”

wasp

Not quite the endorsement that Corradino D’Ascanio was expecting when he presented the fruits of his hard work to his patron.

Yet within months the Italian language possessed a new verb based on the brand.

To date over 16 million of them have been sold around the world and they are produced in 13 countries.

They have become a screen icon starring alongside Audrey Hepburn in Roman holiday, Anita Edberg in La Dolce Vita, Angie Dickinson in Jessica and Gwen Stefani in her 2007 video for Now That You Got It.

If you still haven’t got the brand, they also appeared in Quadrophenia where ever Mod who could afford one, was riding one.

vespa

The brand is of course Vespa.

Following the end of the war, industrialist Enrico Piaggio needed to find a new direction for his company, which had been making planes for the Italian air force. He recognised that Italy had an urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transport. He therefore tasked one of his aeronautical designers, Corradino D’Ascanio, with designing a motorcycle suitable for getting around the bomb-damaged Italian cities.

However, D’Ascanio wasn’t keen on motorcycles. He thought they were too cumbersome, too difficult to repair and generally dirty.

Instead, he took inspiration from having seen US military aircraft drop tiny, olive green Cushman Airbornes to their troops in the war-torn cities of Milan and Turin. The Cushman Airborne was a basic, skeletal, steel motor scooter that allowed troops to nip about the rough terrain.

Adapting his aeronautical expertise to the task in hand, he designed a simple but practical scooter. He moved the gear lever onto the handlebar for easier access. He designed the body to absorb stress in the same way as an aircraft would. The seat position was created to give both safety and comfort while the workings were hidden behind panels to keep the rider’s clothes in pristine condition and the step-through frame meant it was an ideal machine for skirt-wearing women to ride.

In fact, the first Vespas built actually used components from Piaggio’s aircraft; the nose wheel suspension for the front wheel of the scooter.

It was however its narrow-waisted design and buzzing sound that caused Enrico Piaggio to exclaim “Sembra una vespa!” (“It look like a wasp!”). A stroke of fortune as the reaction gave the new scooter its brand name.

In April 1946 the Vespa debuted at a golf club in Rome and was an immediate success. It wasn’t long before  “vespare” (to go somewhere on a Vespa) was being heard on the streets along with the wasp-like buzzing of their engines.

jessiac film

And the moral is that skills in one sector can be successfully transferred into other sectors. Where could you take your brand?

The Tinkerman – From Stealth Bomber to Super Soaker

The Tinkerman – From Stealth Bomber to Super Soaker

B-2A_Spirit

So, what do you do with your evenings if you’re an Air Force engineer and working on the Stealth Bomber during the day? Well, if you’re Lonnie Johnson, you invent a new type of high powered water pistol and give it to your daughter.

“I gave the plastic gun to my seven-year-old daughter, Aneka, and watched as she used it to play with the other kids on the airbase. They couldn’t even get close to her with their little squirt guns.”

The plastic gun turned out to be the prototype of the Super Soaker, the water pistol that transformed water fights around the world.

Lonnie Johnson had always loved to engineer things or, as he would tell the BBC in an interview, “I’ve always liked to tinker with things. It started with my dad. He gave me my first lesson in electricity, explaining that it takes two wires for electric current to flow – one for the electrons to go in, the other for them to come out. And he showed me how to repair irons and lamps and things like that. The kids in the neighbourhood took to calling me ‘the Professor’.”

‘The professor’ got a scholarship to Tuskegee University, famous for the Tuskegee Airmen, where he got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and then graduated with a masters in nuclear engineering.

In 1975, he was called to active duty in the Air Force and worked on US space launches that used nuclear power. An analysis he did that identified a possible failure that NASA had overlooked caught their attention and he was invited to join the Galileo Mission, the unmanned spacecraft sent to study Jupiter and its moons.

Lonnie J b&wIt was here that work on the Super Soaker began. “So in 1982 you could say that I had a fun day job working on these spacecraft in Pasadena, California, but all this time I continued to tinker on my own ideas in the evening.

At that time I was experimenting with a new type of refrigeration system that would use water as a working fluid instead of ozone-destroying CFCs. One evening, I machined a nozzle and hooked it up to the bathroom sink, where I was performing some experiments. It shot a powerful stream of water across the bathroom sink. That’s when I got the idea that a powerful water gun would be fun! But it was months before I did anything about it.”

In fact it wasn’t until he re-joined the Air Force and relocated to a military base in Nebraska that Johnson would combine his work as first engineer testing the B-2 Bomber, the Stealth Bomber, with finishing his first prototype ‘soaker’.

As well as letting his daughter use it, he started to show it off around the base. “I took it to an Air Force picnic one day and a superior officer, a major, saw it and said, ‘What is that you got, Johnson?’ I said, ‘This is my water gun, sir.’ And he said, ‘It looks really strange – does it work?’ So I turned to him and shot him right between the eyes. After that, the picnic was over. Everybody was throwing cups of water, cups of beer and it just turned into a big free-for-all.”
Sensing its potential, Johnson wanted to manufacture the gun himself but, when he got a quote of $200,000 for 1,000 guns, he quickly decided he would have to partner up with a toy company.
There followed seven years of frustration and false starts. Then, in February 1989, Johnson went to the American International Toy Fair in New York and came across a company called Larami.

The then vice president, Al Davis, was interested – sort of.

Super soaker blueprint“I can’t really review a product here,” he told Johnson, “but if you’re ever in Philadelphia, where our headquarters are, I’d be happy to talk to you. Drop in and see us… [but] don’t make a special trip.”
Despite this lukewarm response, Johnson decided he would follow up the lead and started work on a new prototype of the water gun. He used plexiglass and PVC piping, and instead of keeping water inside the gun itself, a two-litre soda bottle sat on the top and acted as a water reservoir.
Johnson picks up the story, “I remember sitting in their conference room with the president and vice-president of the company and some marketing people. I opened my suitcase, took the gun out and shot it across the conference room. And they said: ‘Wow!’ I knew that I had captured their imagination.”
The next challenge was one of commercialisation. This gun was way more complicated than the “little squirt guns” that were on the market, but after lots of work they brought the price down to $10. Even then, neither Johnson nor Larami were sure that anyone would pay anywhere near that amount for a water pistol.

lonnie-johnson-wide

In 1990, the gun first appeared in the toy shops. It was called the “Power Drencher” and despite no real marketing support it sold well. Based on this initial success, plans for a bigger push were made.

“The following year, we rebranded the toy the Super Soaker and did a big push on TV. That was the summer we sold 20 million guns, and I remember just staring at my royalties’ cheque in disbelief” recalls Johnson.

Further generations of Super Soakers followed and today more than 170 Super Soaker models have been launched, generating more than $1bn (£760m) in revenues. Johnson also went on to design the N-Strike range of Nerf dart guns, which used some of the same compressed air technology and earned him even more royalties.

And what has Johnson done with all those royalties?

“I didn’t buy a yacht or anything. I’ve spent the money on something much more interesting – to me, anyway. I have built a scientific facility in Atlanta, Georgia, which has about 30 staff”.
They are working on next generation batteries and engines, but Johnson still wants to tinker “I have a few ideas in mind – not toys, just consumer products that I know will be easy to manufacture and that will sell well. “

And the moral is, what may seem like a little idea can turn into a big brand success. Do you have a little idea with big potential?