Innovation. It's that elusive quality that everyone strives for but no one can quite define.
In a world where manufacturing seems increasingly to flow to the lowest-cost location, it's a quality that industrial designers say manufacturers should pursue. It doesn't have to mean putting a man on the moon. It can come in smaller strides.
Paint manufacturer Sherwin Williams Co., for example, found success with a plastic can that, while it's more expensive, has a handle, a drip-free spout and a reclosable screw top that is very popular with consumers, noted Brian Roderman, vice president of design with PDS Development in Richardson, Texas.
Other innovations can come from listening to consumers, said Christoph B"ninger, president of Munich, Germany-based designafairs GmbH, a unit of Siemens AG.
Consumers like designs that are considered ``authentic,'' he said. That can mean evoking the look of black plastic casings on an antique radio from the 1950s, or using a polymer that glows in the presence of ultraviolet lights and can be integrated into clothes that young adults wear to clubs, he said.
``We have to ask ourselves, how can we add value to products with new materials?'' B"ninger said. ``How can we bring authentic values to plastic?''
Roderman and B"ninger were two of several industrial designers speaking at the Plastics Encounter Design Day conference March 23 in Charlotte. The conference was organized by Plastics News, and co-presented by the Industrial Designers Society of America.
The designers highlighted cameras and wireless communications as two areas of interest.
Elaine Ann, director and founder of Kaizor Innovation, a Hong Kong-based firm that helps companies develop products for China, said U.S. firms have advantages over China in adopting new materials and new processes.
Ann, who studied and worked at design firms in the United States from 1990 to 2002 and has a patent pending for designing a storage system for the Ford F150 truck, urged U.S. companies to push new designs, and not simply tinker by adding new color schemes.
``Sometimes the word `design' has this baggage,'' she said. ``A new color is repackaging. Coming up with a new way to take photos - that is innovation.''
Another speaker, EunSook Kwon, a professor in the fledgling industrial design program at the University of Houston, said mobile phone designers could take a leap forward, combining wireless communication with watches or, borrowing a page from science fiction, put mobile phones directly into clothing.
Kwon, who taught design in Seoul, South Korea, from 1990 to 2003, said she did research for mobile phone giant Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and also advised the South Korean government on design topics.
Kwon said South Korea is one of the globe's most savvy societies for mobile technology, with 34 million cell phone users among 47 million people. About 30 million people there use wireless Internet and 11 million have high-speed Internet connections, she said.
The country is focusing on developing a knowledge-based economy, and trying to build a ``Brand Korea'' name in product development and manufacturing, while also pushing new technology. More than half of Samsung phones made this year will incorporate cameras, for example, she said.
The designers spent time trying to define innovation, or at least the characteristics of a company that innovates. Part of that is giving employees the time to explore, even when it leads to dead ends, B"ninger said. He noted that 3M, which has the most patents per employee of any company in the world, tells its researchers to spend 20 percent of their time on nonstrategic projects.
In a manufacturing environment very concerned with reducing costs and trying to wring efficiency out of factories, some audience members questioned how to tie design concepts to plastics. And they asked how to get the design and manufacturing communities to partner more on product development and cost reduction.
Bruce Claxton, IDSA president and senior director of design integration at Motorola Inc. in Plantation, Fla., said companies need to have chief design officers to bring design issues to upper management. But he also conceded that it can be a challenge promoting awareness of design in a difficult manufacturing economy.
Sometimes, he said, such executives have the impression that ``innovation and cost reduction don't seem to mix.'' But that doesn't have to be the case.
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