How to avoid making buggy whips

Innovation might be a word some are sick of, but it remains essential for success. Melbourne-based manufacturer Trajan Scientific and Medical shared a few insights into what it involves for them. Brent Balinski writes.

The Kodak experience is usually the go-to cautionary tale about the need to keep innovating and staying ahead of disruption.

At Trajan Scientific and Medical, they prefer the speech given by Danny DeVito’s Larry the Liquidator in the 1991 movie, Other People’s Money.

Keep doing what you’re doing, pointed out Larry, and you’ll be obsolete, chasing an increasing share of a shrinking market. It’s not enough to just make a quality product. If it’s not relevant to the day and age, then neither are you. You’ll be serving a horse and cart market in a world that’s moved on to automobiles.

At the present time, Trajan is considering its next generation of devices, which will one day have to meet demands for internet connectivity and point-of-sample health information measurement.

“We know that the consumer community is going to demand that of technology and we will be [making] buggy whips if we don’t do that,” said Dr Andrew Gooley, the company’s chief scientific and medical officer.

“It’s a strong driver for our program.”

Trajan’s program, Gooley told an audience at the company’s Ringwood factory, innovates around the company’s core capabilities in specialty glass manufacture, its relationships with other companies and leading researchers, its evolving business model and beyond.

Collaborating with researchers, a famously tricky area in the Australian environment, was not a consideration a decade ago when Gooley joined a Trajan subsidiary (later acquired by Trajan).

Nowadays the collaborative footprint is a big one (see picture below) and important for helping drag 20th Century knowledge into the current century.

However, efforts have to be carefully-targeted and explicitly industry-led.

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The company looked at a dozen universities before recognising good matches with University of Adelaide (in photonics) and University of Tasmania (in chromatography). They call it a “firing bullets before firing cannons” approach.

“It cannot be about industry collaborating with a university-led research project; it’s about us working with the university and leading that program around solving problems,” Gooley said.

It’s important for research to be guided by industry pull rather than researcher push – another familiar theme.

Further than just making products that answer the demands of current, innovation has also included diversifying risk (in supply chain and in currency) through expanding its operations internationally, and in Trajan’s business model.

Autodesk’s Richard Elving believes that, broadly speaking, manufacturers such as Trajan are operating in a time where there are three major disruptive trends.

These are around how things are designed and made, how these are bought, and the nature of the products themselves.

For those in design, engineering and manufacturing, increased collaboration is hard to miss, said Elving.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Melbourne or Perth or India or America: there’s going to be increased collaboration using social media and getting customers involved early on in the design process,” he explained.

The nature of products tends to be connected, he also pointed out, with the Internet of Things trend everywhere from cars to rubbish bins.

The trend of internet-enabled devices, driven by the consumer, isn’t lost on Trajan, and Gooley said ignoring this would lead to obsolescence. Distributed blood tests are an area Trajan is working towards through its hemaPEN product, and a sample extracted and sent by mail needed a timestamp and communication with the cloud, for example.

Take your eye off the future – and the inevitable disruptive technologies  – and you’ll deal yourself out of it.

It’s not enough to just continue making high-quality products and to expect everything else to work itself out. This returns us to the Other People’s Money example, and the speech Trajan CEO Stephen Tomisich uses to remind employees not to bid on the tech of the last century.

“At one time there must’ve been dozens of companies making buggy whips,” Larry tells the shareholders meeting in OPM.

“And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw.”

Gooley and Elving presented at the first Manufacturers’ Monthly Manufacturing Leaders of Innovation event, supported by Autodesk, which also included a tour of Trajan’s Ringwood (Victoria) manufacturing site. Further Manufacturing Leaders of Innovation events will be held in 2016. Keep an eye on our website and magazine for details.