Downturn innovation

We took the family camping this summer, heading north on a stereotypically American journey through Wyoming and into Montana, visiting Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. We tent camp and do so without a camper or recreational vehicle into which to throw everything. With five of us and all the camping gear in a mini-van, space and weight are at a premium.

I found myself, as I repeatedly loaded and unloaded the van, gauging the relative weight of all of our stuff, thinking casually about composites opportunities in camping equipment. Our folding camp chairs, for example, are made with a canvas fabric attached to an aluminum frame. One chair isn’t too heavy, but five together are a significant percentage of our freight mass. I’ve wondered if that frame could be made of a pultruded composite? Certainly. Cost effectively? Maybe. How about our stainless steel camp stove? Could it be converted to a composite?

Idle, vacation-based musings like these got me to wondering more broadly about opportunities for composites — or lack thereof — in a down economy. The assumption, in a recession, is that most composites companies draw back on research and development and innovation efforts and focus primarily on the “core” business, whatever that is. They work to keep the customers they have, serve them well, and if someone walks in the door with new business, that’s great, but not to be expected.

The reality, I think, is much different. In a down economy, when demand for composites products and services are low, and supply is high, most smart and aggressive composites processors have to think more creatively about not only keeping business in hand, but attracting new customers. The market, in fact, becomes more competitive, not less, and competition rewards innovation and smart solutions, not retraction and retrenching. This means that innovation is in high demand and that the return on investment in creativity has greater potential.

I see, in this environment, signs of entrepreneurship that at first seem counter-intuitive, but make more sense on further consideration. For instance, I have received in the last few months several press releases from people who used to work for a composites-related company but have either been let go or left and are starting their own businesses. In a recession, such independence might seem illogical and ill-fated, but I suspect that a down economy might be just the stimulus some folks need to force themselves to break away from the status quo and explore and test new composites options. The unspoken belief behind such efforts is: If I can make this venture work now, I can make it work anytime.

In any case, we here at CT see no dearth of creativity and innovation in the composites industry. We are preparing to construct the editorial calendar for next year, and already I can see that we are not lacking in innovative ideas from which to choose. And I’m hoping that someone out there can do some work on developing those low-weight camping chairs I’m searching for. The market has at least one buyer in it already.