nnovation is one of today’s fashionable business buzzwords. But what does it actually mean?
Dr John Sinclair-Day is pretty clear, which is just as well because he is in charge of Technology Sourcing and Innovation Management at International Paint.
“Innovation is about producing something new that has added value,” he explains. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be based on new science or new technology but often means introducing and adapting technologies developed in other sectors. Companies that don’t innovate risk almost certain demise over time because someone will inevitably find a way of doing what they do more effectively.”
He is clearly passionate about his brief and cannot hide his enthusiasm as he describes some of the latest developments in new coatings technologies currently being tried and tested at the company’s research headquarters in Felling.
Many are confidential and Dr Sinclair-Day reluctantly holds back from divulging sensitive details. But his excitement is nevertheless infectious.
Do or die!
He points to US multinational Kodak as an example of what happens when there’s a failure to grasp innovation. It failed to grasp the implications for its business of disruptive digital technology, he explains. Although the company had introduced photography to the masses and, ironically, was the first to produce a digital camera in 1975, its executives were fearful of the potential damage to its film-based business from a new digital era.
Kodak bosses shelved the new technology until the 1990s by which time they had been outwitted by innovative Japanese firms like Nikon and Canon which enthusiastically grasped the digital medium. The writing for Kodak was clearly on the wall and the company filed for US bankruptcy protection in January 2012.
Scientists at International Paint have always been innovators, Dr Sinclair-Day declares. The roots of the revolution date back to 1881 when Max and Albert Holzapfel began mixing paint by the River Tyne to combat marine fouling. On the basis of their innovation, and subsequently with the establishment of the first field research laboratory which was established at Newton Ferrers in 1927, International Paint has pioneered a range of new technologies which have underpinned the development of revolutionary marine coatings now in use all over the world.
He has plenty of examples.
When Alex Milne, for example, an International Paint coatings scientist working in Newton Ferrers, discovered in 1973 that marine organisms didn’t stick to the sealant used to attach antifouling boards on test rafts in the River Yealm estuary, he took the sealant off to his laboratory to examine it in more detail.
A silicone moment
Originally used in the aviation industry, he discovered properties in the silicone-based sealant which prevented the attachment of marine organisms. As a result, the company registered an appropriate patent and some 23 years later, Intersleek®425 was launched as the first in a new generation of silicone-based foul release coatings. This was true innovation in action. At that time, no-one would have believed that an effective anti-fouling could perform without being based on a biocide.
More recently, International Paint’s chemists and polymer specialists, following more than ten man-years of research, have discovered that by modifying the make-up of the polymer used in earlier generations of Intersleek® they can facilitate the release of slime, a generic term for thousands of microscopic organisms which form communities on ships’ hulls and create extra drag.
The introduction of more hydrophilic (water-loving) molecules to the polymer used as the basis of the patented technology behind Intersleek®900, has led to the development of a new patented polymer on which the company’s latest foul release coating is based. Intersleek®1100SR – where SR stands for “slime release” – was launched in London at the end of February.
To hasten the development of this latest foul release coating, the company’s Research Manager David Williams realised that real-life testing of slime accumulation on test rafts at the company’s research sites around the world would take too long. There had to be a faster way.
"Innovation in action"
After brain-storming with his 30-strong team of marine biologists, chemists and other multi-disciplined scientists, he concluded that the research team needed to grow their own slime in a specially designed “slime farm.” Ideal conditions could be created in which to grow slime quickly and hasten the trials of potential new coating formulations.
“This is real innovation in action,” declares Dr Sinclair-Day. “The slime farm will support us in our drive to develop new and more effective products.”
But he is keen to stress that innovation transcends industry boundaries and gives a topical example. Biofouling, he points out, is a feature of all our lives because harmful bacteria stick to our teeth every day. Dental scientists want to find ways to stop them sticking.
Certain mouth-washes are more effective than others. Perhaps there is a way in which the technology used to develop mouth-wash fluid could benefit current research into marine biofilm development, he suggests. “Our research into biofilms continues to involve many different approaches including working with associated companies, university collaborations and sponsoring of PhDs.”
Small is beautiful
Dr Sinclair-Day suggests that science today is moving so fast that companies which fail to innovate risk a Kodak-like demise. In fact, he goes so far as to say that International Paint’s own development may have been constrained by some of its suppliers which were, or are, badly in need of a strong shot of “innovation factor.”
He is a firm believer that good ideas are just as likely to come out of small companies or well-motivated individuals. And he is master-minding two initiatives to capitalise on this. He is looking at “technology sourcing” so as to be absolutely clear “who we’re talking to, about what, and why. Can we harness their technologies for our benefit?” he asks.
He has also recently established a “database for ideas” generated by International Paint employees. More than 700 ideas have been submitted by company personnel so far, and are reviewed monthly. Some are adapted or developed because they fit in with other research and development initiatives but others are “fabulous” and get resourced in their own right.
“Innovation is the core of our business,” he concludes, “and it’s my job to make sure there’s plenty of it round here.”