Low Tech Innovation
by Winston Sun, MBA ‘16 (4/7/15)
I recently visited Welch Allyn, the leader in medical diagnostic equipment. The company holds many patents, but the most impressive one for me is a very simple one, the FlexiPort® Disposable Blood Pressure Cuffs. It’s on a very different and promising end of the innovation spectrum compared with ordinary inventions.
Simple is the unique charm of FlexiPort. The whole device is made by compressing several layers of polypropylene and attaching a single-point connection. Patients wear the cuff for the duration of their stay, and nurses secure pressure data by attaching a tube into the cuff connector.
Due to the wide availability of material and mature technology to mass produce, product cost is minimal. It solves issues with cross infection created by traditional shared cuffs and improves cost efficiency through the elimination of tubes and multiple connectors. Market demand is huge. High demand coupled with low cost creates huge economic value for the producer.
When we talk about innovation, mainstream media and business press are awash with praise for high-tech innovations, and seemingly gush over every Big Idea as though it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But R&D cost and the complexity of the innovation are not perfect measures for efficiency. Many breakthrough products actually fail to deliver reasonable rewards. In the 1990s Michelin developed a revolutionary new brand of tire with sensors and an internal hard wheel that could run almost perfectly for 125 miles after a puncture. Yet, by 2007 the product was such a failure that Michelin had to abandon it. We can identify a whole list of such innovations, which cost millions of dollars to develop but barely generate any profit.
The lesson I learned from Welch Allyn is that innovation should start from customer demand. Waiting for a scientist to run out of the lab and proclaim “Eureka” is dangerous for a company. The company needs to determine how to develop a product to meet customer demand. The path is full of uncertainty and can be dangerous. If the process can originate from the customer, the whole process will be more anticipatable. 3M is an excellent example of low tech innovation. Post-it Notes and damage-free hanging solutions do not include complex technology, but can solve specific demand of customers.
There are still plenty of opportunities in the low-tech innovation field. The biggest issue for companies involves culling customer demand and communicating these demands to research scientists.