I’ve worked most of my career in product development. And people who learn about that often ask: ‘Where do you get these ideas?’ ‘How do you know they’ll work?’
Good questions. The kind that make me wish I had really clever answers.
But I don’t. The fact is, we get most of our great product development ideas from customers, or from people who are prepared to be our customers if we, and our products, will do what they say is needed.
As to whether we know the ideas will work, there’s another simple answer: you’ll never really know until you try. From a commercial standpoint, trying entails making the business case for committing time and resources toward an uncertain outcome. For me or a colleague, it’s a challenge to make that case. But if I’m working together with a customer or likely customer, making the case gets a lot easier.
I say that from experience. Looking back, many of the significant performance and capability advances in Conair products have originated when a customer asked for help or made a suggestion. Let me offer one example:
It used to be commonplace for customers to buy dryers, hoppers, loading systems and other auxiliaries, then set them up and let them run undisturbed. This is a great recipe for process consistency. But about 14 years ago, a customer in the beverage bottling industry asked us to help them save energy.
They didn’t ask because their PET bottle production and bottling operations weren’t working reliably or profitably—they were—but because they were worried about making them more “sustainable.” The problem, as they saw it, was that their bottle production operations were consuming energy at a basically fixed rate. For example, their dryers all had identical settings, independent of how wet or dry the resin might be. Though product quality and consistency were excellent, they felt that this wasn’t good enough, given the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in energy costs.
For us, the challenge was to rethink drying: to make drying systems more flexible, responsive to variations in moisture levels and throughputs, and able to vary their energy consumption automatically while still delivering consistently dried material. Meeting this challenge required a lot of innovations:
- More accurate sensing and control of key drying parameters
- Significant amounts of data monitoring and trending
- Top-to-bottom temperature profiling of material, temperature, and airflow in the drying hopper
- Application of variable-frequency drive technology
In the end, the needs of this customer drove us to develop a drying solution that balanced two very different ideas: high consistency in material condition and dryness, delivered by a drying system that was constantly adjusting key variables so that it could save energy.
For processors (and equipment suppliers) used to a world where you dial in a process and then let it run, this was a very disruptive technology. But that was then. Processors, and competitors, caught on very quickly so that today, dryer features and capabilities like these are expected and more commonly available. So too are the other technologies—data monitoring and trending, adaptive controls, variable frequency drives, and more—that we had to master to make this idea work.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have seen that all of this was going to work out beautifully. But at the time, I couldn’t. Fortunately, the customer could, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, what’s your idea? What do you know or need that we need to know about?