Innovation lessons from history

The importance of market perceptions cannot be overstated in influencing the rate of technological change. Never has this been more relevant than with the direction of innovation in nanotechnology.

There are generally only a few main objections when speaking to prospective buyers of nanomaterials. One of the more frustrating of these can occur when asking industrial material producers whether they would consider nanomaterials to enhance their products. They will often reply that their customers have never asked them for any "nano" products and so they simply have no interest in them.

One expression immediately springs to mind that the great industrialist Henry Ford is claimed to have said; "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". I don't believe the lesson learned from this saying is actually that your customer is wrong or that you shouldn't listen to them for insight and direction towards innovation. On the contrary, innovation must be a demand driven process. The real point is that innovation needs an objective or a goal. Innovation is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Your customers know what their objectives are, they know what they need to improve, they know the ends but they don't know the means. Customers will always second guess the means but this is not what we should be asking of them. This is the job of the technologist, to provide solutions.

If Mr. Ford had asked his customers what their end goals and targets were, perhaps they would have simply stated that they required certain performances from their transportation vehicles that aligned with their needs, namely that of improved speed whilst maintaining affordability. By asking them for the means of how to get there, of course he would have had no responses specifically stating "an assembly line automobile, please". In the same way, manufacturers of industrial materials and products should be asking their customers not how they think the manufacturer's products should be improved, but what improvements and end-results the customer is looking for in terms of characteristics, performances and functionalities. Once the ends are established, it becomes very clear that nanotechnology is a powerful solution to address many of those needs. It is an enabling technology that can bring about step-change performance improvement across various materials markets.

This guiding principal to innovation might not hold true in every situation. Invention cannot always be guided by the hand of the market since some problems can be solved that no one knew even existed. However there are certainly plenty of real, measurable industry challenges out there waiting to be addressed. Asking the right questions might just provide the push to persuade further adopters and speed up the diffusion of innovation in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is essentially an industrial technology and its adoption across manufacturing firms is where it will realise its greatest benefits. With such advantages for manufacturers to capitalise upon through nanotechnology contrasted by its slow uptake, it is perhaps therefore due to a lack of technical knowledge within existing industry that is stifling innovation in this direction. After all, commercialisation of technologies into new markets requires the development of new processes, optimisation of those processes and the creation of new infrastructures to support the ongoing use of that technology and growth of that particular market. This places a large requirement on expanding the knowledge base and expertise in industry before widespread adoption of any technology can occur.

Expertise however will not pick up until businesses view nanotechnology with less uncertainty. Confidence needs to grow before companies will commit capital to develop or hire staff with the necessary skills and take on projects to adapt to new processes. The attributes of innovative technologies which influence this acceptance by end-users and therefore the speed of diffusion across industry are often cited as those defined by Everett M. Rogers, namely the relative Advantage, Compatibility, Complexity, Trialability and Observability of new technologies in comparison to pre-existing techniques and processes. The advantages of nanotechnology are widely touted and yet the industry perceptions that are possibly holding back its widespread uptake are those of concerns over compatibility with existing processes (as though many of the applications of nanotechnology require fundamental as opposed to evolutionary changes), complexity of systems that require the expertise of specialists before they can be fully understood and optimised, limited trialability (as the more radical a technology the larger the capital expenditure on even lab-scale and pilot-scale trials), and observability challenges (as products marketed/labelled/registered under the term "nano" can be met with media and consumer concerns within certain markets).

Reducing this uncertainty may be achievable at a lower threshold for certain markets than may initially appear to be the case. Whilst nanotechnology is often thought of as a fundamental technology as envisaged by Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler, which is certainly true of its potential in atomically precise manufacturing, nevertheless the use of passive nanomaterials in composites or sunscreen for example (often cited as the first step along this path) can be perceived of much more as an evolutionary technology for manufacturers, providing in effect a more advanced suite of performance additives. In this regard, whilst there are still certain process refinements and infrastructure requirements to be put in place to seamlessly incorporate nanomaterials into existing industry, the associated risk and cost of developing products along these lines is far lower than that of utilising more fundamental technologies associated with nanotechnology such as nano self-assembly and MEMS. The fact is that the processes and techniques needed to incorporate nanomaterials into commercial production lines exist today. At Fullerex, we have a clear view over the landscape of these technologies that enables us to access the right supply chains for our customers.

Ford did not invent the assembly line, but adapted it for his own factory processes. Similarly, industry today can incorporate nanotechnology into existing processes through use of nanomaterials simply by employing the right processes that exist today.

As history has continuously shown, innovation can be achieved without invention and there is great reward in doing so.