It may be tempting to think of concepts like "design thinking" or "open innovation" like they're just new business buzzwords.
But designers and many OEMs have already embraced the ideas for years and plastics firms would be smart to join the party, experts said at the Plastics News Executive Forum, held March 7-9 in Summerlin.
"My expectation is, within 10 years, open innovation will be like lean. It will be like ISO. It will be the standard of care, the standard of business. And it will be about staying even," said Matt Beale, president of Daedalus Product Development in Pittsburgh.
Beale's firm uses anthropology-based design research to help clients create innovative new products.
"You should get on while it's about getting ahead," Beale said.
Beale knew that some in the manufacturing crowd might think his comments about innovation were a little far out, but he was not alone.
Tom Kelley, general manager at IDEO, an award-winning design and development firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., recalled how his company changed in 1991, when it first brought anthropologists on board.
"When I joined the firm, 100 percent of the firm had master's degrees in engineering from Stanford," Kelley said. "They were doing this incredibly challenging work. They were trying to design, for example, laptop computers that you can drop 4 feet onto concrete and have them not break."
When the anthropologists came, the firm shifted from trying to solve problems to noticing problems that no one had ever even considered, and then coming up with solutions.
"I was so skeptical of the anthropology stuff. But I have flipped 180 degrees. I now believe this is the biggest single source of innovation at IDEO," Kelley said.
"You know we still have all those brilliant technical problem-solvers, but [you've] got to know what problem to solve. And the anthropologists are hilariously good at going into the field and seeing a new problem."
He cited an example with plastics implications. A few years ago, Oral-B Laboratories came to IDEO for help designing a toothbrush for children.
Before then, all kids' toothbrushes were designed like adult models, only smaller and skinnier. But the anthropologists, after observing children brushing their teeth, suggested a big, fat, squishy model.
Kelley said when he ran into his client a few years later, who told him that "when we came out with those toothbrushes, we had the best-selling kids' toothbrush in the world for 18 months."
Kelley urged the plastics crowd to be like the anthropologists, experimenters and cross-pollinators who help bring innovation to the market. On the cross-pollination side, he suggested that managers find "reverse mentors" young people who can help them understand current trends, like social media.
"There are trends in the world today that do not begin with balding, 50-year-old white males," he joked. "Find someone younger than you. They find all kinds of things that we miss."
One tool that companies can use to innovate, specifically, is "open innovation." Andy Zynga, CEO of NineSigma Inc. in Cleveland, explained that his company helps clients to discover the pockets of innovation that may exist at other firms, universities any number of places.
Any company can sign up to receive requests for proposals from NineSigma, and there's no charge only the companies seeking help pay for the service.
"You might be tempted to say to innovate more, let's just throw more dollars at R&D. But actually it doesn't work that way," Zynga said. "There are a lot of small pockets of knowledge in small companies, in universities. That is not being tapped."
Zynga suggested that companies tap someone in the organization to be their "tech scout." Charge them with going to trade fairs and conferences, staying informed and looking for new opportunities.
The aim, as Beale put it, should be to become a miracle factory.
"I think every company is at least a one-miracle company. Some founder had an insight the right person, the right place, the right time," Beale said.
"A lot of your companies are probably a two-miracle company. Significant transformation has occurred, and you've thrived after it," he said. But for success in the long haul, firms need to generate innovative new ideas all the time.
One molder in attendance pointed out that, in his experience, some OEMs are bad at innovation.
"Many of our customers come up with new designs that are horribly flawed. What's the fundamental breakdown organizationally, where companies [that] are supposed to do this for a living are really bad at it?" he asked.
Beale said the problem often is that big companies get to be very good at making products efficiently and profitably.
"The kind of thinking that's required to do that, it's analytical, it's deductive. But it's not creative," Beale said. "And when it's time to do something new, the tool set is not there.
"In fact, the people who are good at thinking creatively have often been weeded out of those companies because of the need to rationally make continuous improvement," he said.