It is very easy to think of innovation as inventing a new product and making a fortune for your company or yourself – if only it was so simple. Throughout the past two years, tanners have had to be innovative in many ways; deciding whether to widen the scope of segments they are involved in, whether to partner with a new biomaterials development, whether to move into finished product, changing thinking on cash and stock systems so as to be able to withstand delivery issues caused by Covid-19, looking at a total rethink of supply chains to ensure future resilience and making new and updated products.

Yet, whether a tannery moves into a new segment or sits tight does matter, as does staying up to date. The latter often means relentless adaptations as environmental standards change, chemicals become unavailable and machinery ages and demands higher maintenance. Even if a tannery is not in an area where colours and textures need regular updating, standing still is rarely possible as customers evolve to fit the changing marketplace.

Product innovation

Probably the first “designed” leather we had was “Dongola” (named after a war in Sudan), invented in 1879 by James Kent in his upstate New York tannery. He made it to replace the expensive alum, flour and egg-yolk process used for glove leather, but it was found to be better with footwear leather, on kidskins or calf. 1930s textbooks still offered it as a process for calfskins even though chrome processing was by then dominating the footwear sector.

However, such blockbuster breakthroughs are very few and far between. A great technician is usually involved but is normally part of a wider team who feed in problems, market opportunities, technical suggestions and ideas. It is hard to keep thinking up new ideas so building a business on routine innovations is very difficult, and competitors will catch up quickly with mere incremental changes.

Nevertheless, while the 20th century was the time for heavy promotion of branded leathers such as Prime Tanning’s Floater and Crazy Horse or Pittards WR100, we still have many great leathers on offer today.

Difficulty of scaling up

With innovation always comes the difficulty of scaling up from prototypes, made harder if samples were being sent round the world for making up. After sampling, it was not easy to be sure that the bulk will be identical, and repeatable. This was a major area of concern in the 1970s and 1980s and suede producers will remember the rigorous colour approval adopted by retailer Marks and Spencer, which was sometimes hard to reconcile with a natural material and led to a large volume of rejects. For a large tannery, a rejection rate of 2% or more quickly cut into any profits.

On the other hand, tanners were known to use risky processes that were hard to control in bulk to achieve their goals. This led to what I remember sales staff calling the “HYPE it and PIPE it” system with PIPE standing for Post Introduction Product Engineering.

The “fake it and make it” approach of Theranos leader Elizabeth Holmes has similar connotations and Wired Magazine in 2018 ran this quote from Jina Choi, Director of the SEC’s San Francisco Regional Office: “Innovators who seek to revolutionise and disrupt an industry must tell investors the truth about what their technology can do today, not just what they hope it might do someday.”

While tanners were not trying to become billionaires by defrauding investors, the failure to deliver to specification and on time did cause sizeable problems, as shoe factories and others were working on moving to a just-in-time approach, and thus could be left with an empty factory if the leather was incorrect.

In the 20th century, it has been recognised that while leather involves the creativity that fits with art and beauty, it is also an engineered product. New machinery, chemicals, layouts and staff training mean that, while mistakes are still made, a well organised tannery can produce outstanding, innovative leathers in bulk, on time and to specification. But it does emphatically demonstrate that we must be open with customers and never over promise.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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