The project is led by Dr Chris Simms of the university’s Product Innovation Research Group and sponsored by KernPack.
“The problem you find is that, if your innovation is led by the product, you can end up restricting your possibilities, making certain assumptions based on the existing production line and embedded knowledge,” said Simms. “Ideas get ruled out for flawed reasons.”
Nearly abandoned concept
Simms cited the example of a consumer goods company which developed a new concept, but very nearly abandoned it. “They’d never used this process before, and felt it would involve too much investment,” he said. “Luckily, they discovered that the technology was already being utilised by another unit in their own company.”
The example of the Guinness widget, first applied to kegs and later to cans and bottles for nitrogenation, was also relevant.
To some extent barriers to innovation were about a ‘silo’ mentality, he stated, or a lack of ‘absorptive capacity’. This is defined as a firm’s capacity for finding new information and internalising it.
Where lines were being replaced, there was sometimes a tendency to look at low-cost options rather than considering the opportunities afforded by more flexible lines.
“At other times, where a business feels it is stuck with an existing line, we have come across the concept of ‘line stretch’,” said Simms. “A relatively simple and inexpensive addition to the line may enable you to do something else.”
The degree to which process is adapted to drive innovation can depend on who takes the decisions, he said: “If it is a category or brand manager, they may not understand the production line, and are more likely to base assumptions on costs or barriers.”
KernPack general manager Pete Jolley said that one aim of the project was to “try to define some of the lesser-known benefits of investing in production lines”.