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How to stay cutting edge

Business · 5 min read

Innovation master class: how to stay cutting edge

It’s easy to call to mind companies with a proven record of innovation: Apple, SpaceX, or Salesforce, to name a few.

Technology companies have captured our imagination over the past several decades, created markets, and put new products in our hands that change the way we live. But the tech companies don’t have a patent on innovation: enterprising businesses have been innovating as long as there’s been trade.

Truly creative companies don’t just have one brilliant idea and then rest on their laurels. They think about the world differently, solve problems we didn’t know we had, and aren’t limited by the status quo.

Transparent innovation

Take the American glass company, Corning. Since it started producing the glass bulbs for Thomas Edison’s electric lights in the late 1800s, Corning has constantly evolved, pivoting into new sectors and product lines through its advanced technical knowledge for over 160 years. Corning quickly showed an aptitude for innovation, going from being Edison’s sole light bulb supplier starting in 1879, to creating PYREX in 1908, the heat-resistant material still ubiquitous in kitchens and labs.

The company went on to develop the windows used in space shuttles, fiber optic cable that delivers high speed internet data, catalytic converters cleaning pollutants from our car exhaust, and, most recently, market-dominating Gorilla Glass, the damage-resistant glass material covering smartphone and tablet device screens around the world (even if some iPhone X owners have reported screens that are seemingly too fragile).

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lab technician wearing a mask

From the beginning, Corning has been committed to rigorous research and development. The company established one of the first industrial research departments in the United States in 1915. Its researchers came from a wide range of scientific disciplines and were allowed to conduct open-ended research. Today, the company has some 2,000 scientists around the world and reinvests 8-10% percent of its annual revenue in R&D. The freedom to follow a more circuitous path to knowledge that Corning’s researchers are given is a hallmark of successfully innovative companies. It’s a long-term investment that can pay off handsomely.

Gorilla Glass was introduced 10 years ago, but Corning is still finding new uses for the tough material (entire car dashboards, for example) and new ways to improve our device screens. The glass smartphone covers have gotten thinner and tougher, and Corning scientists have even found a way to infuse Gorilla Glass with ionic silver, making it an antimicrobial surface.
But Corning’s approach of heavy research and development comes with its own share of risks. The company spends twice as much as its competitors in the lab, and not every seed bears fruit. In addition, unconfirmed suspicion that Gorilla Glass is used in seemingly fragile iPhone Xs can reflect poorly on the company.

Anticipating the customer

Trial and error and a healthy dose of luck are often at the heart of invention, but companies also need to focus strategically on consumer needs. At least, that’s what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told U.S. News way back in 2008.

"If you're competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering," he told the news magazine.

By then, the internet giant had already made the jump from online book store to discount retail giant, but Bezos’ customer focus has repeatedly driven his company’s bolder gambles. 

In 2005, Amazon introduced Prime, its one-price subscription that initially offered customers deals on shipping. The membership perks have expanded significantly in the past 12 years. When it was launched, Prime was a total leap of faith. The company had no idea if the loss leader would be a winner with the customer, but it’s turned out to be extremely popular and quite profitable. 

The service saw a 50 percent increase in 2014, and revenue from the subscriptions grew in its recent Q3 2017 earnings, up 53 percent over the comparable quarter the year before. Prime membership, combined with the Amazon smartphone app and one-click purchasing, has made it easy for Amazon to be a one-stop shop for consumers.

Everything from monthly staples to last-minute impulse buys can be easily purchased. Prime simply eliminated the shipping cost and wait-time obstacles for Amazon’s customers, who have rewarded the company by purchasing more than ever before.

Amazon has also maintained much of the nimbleness of a startup, delving into electronics manufacturing, too.

The Amazon Echo speaker was Amazon’s most successful push into the increasingly popular Internet of Things in 2014. However, it wasn’t the speaker but the artificial intelligence inside the Wi-Fi-enabled device that was the belle of the ball at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the beginning of 2017, appearing in Ford cars, LG's new refrigerator and Huawei's Mate 9 smartphone.

While Corning stays busy in the lab and Amazon seeks inspiration from its customers’ needs, other companies try to harness both avenues for innovative progress.

High-flying innovation

Global logistics company DHL remains innovative by staying abreast of emerging trends and practicing the nurturing of a culture of innovation. Through a combination of anticipating customer needs and monitoring advances in technology with its Logistics Trend Radar, DHL is able to hone in on real trends with long-term potential. The logistics multinational even established a pair of Innovation Centers, one in Bonn, Germany, the other in Singapore, designed for customers as well as DHL’s own internal teams to meet, connect and find inspiration.

One trend DHL seized upon was unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

While airborne drones might feel like something out of science fiction, DHL’s tests have shown that UAVs could be a game changer for logistics in rural areas and other places that are currently more difficult to reach. The Parcelcopter has successfully delivered medication and other urgently needed goods to a German island in the North Sea, and braved wind and snow to deliver to villages in the Bavarian Alps.

While UAVs might not replace traditional ground-based transportation, they could provide relief in traffic-congested cities or access to remote locations. The experience gained from these early tests only improves the technology. The applications are manifold and might not even have been imagined yet. Through its UAV program, DHL is pushing itself into new territories, quite literally.

In his essay 'Nature', Ralph Waldo Emerson famously urged his readers to “turn the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs,” to get a new perspective on nature. Many a business leader has similarly lauded the value of new experiences in opening up one’s mind to new ideas. DHL’s Parcelcopter can physically take the company to new places, but the long-term payoff for this change in scenery is immeasurable.

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