The key to growing your manufacturing business – and the wider economy – is innovation


“Innovation distinguishes a leader from a follower”. So said Apple’s legendary founder Steve Jobs, and there are few who would argue against the importance of innovation in business.


Since BSI was founded in 1901, our role has always been, and continues to be, to help the process of innovation. Our journey began 120 years ago, with innovation to create the very first British standard – to help standardize tram rails. UK manufacturing has changed quite radically since then, with continual innovation taking place across the whole manufacturing lifecycle, from product research, development and design, through to production, logistics, marketing, customer service and more.


While the early years of the 20th Century saw the proliferation of game-changing new technologies, including electricity and internal combustion, today’s engine of economic growth is accelerating digitalization. In manufacturing, we’re witnessing ongoing digital transformation that is creating more personalized, customized products, and improved process efficiencies through technologies such as Big Data, Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence. Manufacturers are faced with a menu of opportunities, ranging from simply automating parts and inventory replenishment from suppliers, or creating fully automated and digitized factories, through to managing products when they’re in use.


Managing innovation

So, how can UK manufacturers nurture and manage innovation, from high-level strategy right through to project delivery on the ground? How do they identify the initiatives that will give them the greatest return on investment, either by improving existing products and processes or by looking for new solutions to problems coming over the horizon?


Another pioneer of digital technology, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, has encapsulated what successful innovation demands: “Innovation requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, to sit down and talk with customers, get their feedback, and understand their needs.”


Gates’s view was echoed at a recent BSI webinar on innovation. Here are some of our clients’ thoughts:


Collaborate – “Collaboration is key because the more people work together, the faster and better innovation is likely to be. For example, on fast-moving digital innovations, where we’ve invested quite heavily, we’re very willing to work with tech-savvy external experts who can add their specialist data insights to our own areas of expertise. It’s about creating the right atmosphere to allow people to collaborate, come up with ideas, experiment, and follow those ideas through. Everybody in the business has a role to play in the process and they understand that.”

Create an innovation culture – “For us, that means having the ambition to innovate right from the very top. It’s a board-level priority to embed it all the way through the business to the people on the shopfloor, where a lot of our innovation comes from. Innovation is a great way to fuel enthusiasm. It can stem from any part of the business and everyone, at some point, is touched by it – which makes it exciting and dynamic.”

Don’t fear failure – “We understand that innovation involves failing at times. We don’t want to make costly failures, but we accept that not every idea will succeed – and that’s how we learn.

Set targets – “We’ve become even more focused on innovation by setting vitality index targets. The vitality index is typically calculated as the percentage of gross revenue generated from recently launched products.”

Innovate early – “We look to innovate right from the very start of a process, because that’s when you've got the biggest opportunity to make an impact.”

Solve customers’ problems – “Making innovation a commercially viable product or service is all about finding solutions to customers’ problems. We challenge our team to try and spot customers’ problems – even before they do themselves sometimes – that we can solve for them. That’s not easy, but it can lead to breakthrough innovation that’s both professionally and commercially rewarding. We also ‘mine’ challenges back from the industry generally – for example, in relation to new regulations that require our customers to change existing practices.”


Help is at hand

By implementing ISO 56002, the international standard for innovation management, manufacturers can benefit from the robust framework it provides for an innovation management system, helping them scale up new ideas to ensure a more sustainable and resilient future.


One of our clients, a construction products manufacturer, observes: “Adopting ISO 56002 gave us an opportunity to systemize and standardize our innovation process. This has helped make it more productive and more visible. That’s important for all our stakeholders, not least our shareholders, who want to see a robust approach.”


In recent months, BSI has worked collaboratively with industry to develop a new BSI Kitemark certification scheme – based on ISO 56002 – to further support the process and benefits of innovating.


Spurs to growth

New and improved products are the lifeblood of manufacturers, large and small. They work in a competitive environment, where the need to differentiate their offering is key. To continue to stay relevant and succeed, they must keep innovating.


Recent events have provided a further spur to innovation, which in time will contribute to improved performance and faster growth. Forced to severely reduce physical human interaction, manufacturers, among others, have upped the pace at which they’ve digitalized and automated their operations. Now, the opportunity exists to invest further in digital transformation, reap significant efficiency and productivity gains, and contribute to wider economic expansion.


Recent times may well have been tough, but manufacturing leaders would be wise to keep their eye on this prize.