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On March 7, I spent the day at the University of Northampton talking about innovation and new product development with Masters’ leather students, many of whom had significant experience and knowledge
As ever, you learn as much or more leading and presenting these discussions as the students do. Thinking out loud and being challenged on what you say really provokes deep thinking, and all teaching requires two or three times the presentation hours in preparation.
What is clear is that the leather industry fits very well into all the leading edge theory on innovation and market development. Even more, in many instances, tanners and our customers often provide the best examples. That is why Hush Puppies and Converse are central to Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point, and no discussion on the virtual corporation can miss out the central role of Nike. The power of well integrated clusters, and the innovation and market power they can develop, still brings us back to vibrant communities like the centres of leather making in Italy. Anyone interested in process innovation alongside product innovation would do well to look at the automobile leather tanners, the tanning industry's larger wet-blue operations, and the larger, leading edge footwear leather tanners.
Indeed, it was a surprise in Milan to discover how strong the order books of the top machinery producers were. While the pace of chemical innovation has slowed as the commitment to compliance with new environmental legislation has hit many leather chemical producers, the machinery makers have taken a role in offering process options that allow tanners to redesign production flows depending on whether they are always making just one or two standard products, or have a highly complex mix of leather types and substances. Gone are the days when a tannery was just a tannery and the only things which separated them was whether they used pits or drums, or whether they split whole hides or sides. The modern tannery is carefully structured for the production of its required leathers with real precision.
So we have both product and process innovation, and both remain vital to advancing leather in a competitive world. But another look at Tanning Tech and the nesting and cutting machinery on show indicates changing "business models". There is no doubt our industry is consolidating as smaller tanners get closed and the bigger ones expand but, allied to this, we have watched automobile tanners starting to cut their own leathers, shoe makers build their own tanneries and a whole variety of major and minor reconfigurations.
Spend a day talking about innovation with bright engaged students and you will come away knowing that the changes to the leather industry are happening fast; will accelerate and will involve not just product and process but the entire business model.
8th March 2016
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