Robust innovation and dominant design

Redwood Comment
Published:  22 July, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

British Airways marked the end of an era when the company recently announced it was permanently retiring all its Boeing 747s, which first flew under its former BOAC livery in April 1971. Although as a student I had previously crossed the Atlantic in its predecessor, the 707, my career over the last fifty years has involved huge use of these Jumbo Jets.

I believe my first 747 trip, in the early 1970s, was a flight to Chicago to inspect Challenge Cooks Mixers installed in a Milwaukee Tannery. We were planning to utilise them in a new lime yard in Holmes Halls Tanners in Hull, England. They did not prove quite the technical leap forward hoped for, and the industry preferred to revert back to drums. But that is not the whole story. We installed the Mixers with water metering, load cells and a comprehensive drainage system. Given that we were replacing old, leaky drums with lattice doors drainage systems, for the first time we could accurately monitor the float, weight, temperature and pH as well as direct waste streams for separate treatment before mixing. These were major innovations which soon became standard.

Bessant tells us that “history teaches us that innovation is not a luxury item… but a survival imperative” and it is very obvious now that the leather industry must work hard in this area for both product updates and fundamental advances. All innovations matter, but some last longer than others. The 747 is recognised as being a robust design that soon dominated the industry. It was spacious, carried large numbers of passengers at much reduced average passenger cost, and the hump of the double deck gave it an attractive look. For freight versions, the cockpit above meant the nose could be opened for easy access to a cavernous loading space. Many versions were produced, and even now one or two freight versions is still in production. It has had an exceptionally long life-cycle.

In the tanning industry, both chrome tanning and the tanning drum, fit into the same category, while we have many ideas from Dynavacs to RIATS which heralded transformation but have not themselves survived. From the aviation world, Concorde fits this segment of lean technologies where a wonderful concept was impossible to fly with subsidies. I flew only once on Concorde but could not begin to count how often I have used 747s. I have often been in every class and every configuration. I even had the opportunity to fly from London to Perth in 1978 in First Class and use the historic upstairs Lounge in the Sky, before commercial pressures turned it into seating.

Nevertheless, like Concorde, the Dynavacs and the RIATS were well worth making and testing. The world is uncertain, and the only certainty is that simply sitting still carries with it the higher risk.

No organisation owns all the technology it needs
We are in a complex modern world where no organisation owns all the technology it needs to meet modern consumer demands, but at the same time tanneries have become very supplier dominated. Our chemical and equipment suppliers offer specific skills that it is vital that we work with, but it is time to ensure that a greater level of the technology is owned in-house. That is to say tanners, chemists and production engineers in the tannery must be trained to do more than scale up and run someone else’s process.

The last decade has shown that the leather marketplace has become hostile to incumbents, and this requires a strategic re-examination. It means going beyond developing new products and services. It demands radically reconceiving them, redrawing our industry boundaries and redefining our entire marketspace. What are our fundamental skills? How should they be best deployed? Are our customers able to work to our advantage with consumers?

For most of the last few decades, we have heard arguments that marketing leather would de-stabilise a structure where all hides and skins went into leather and got sold anyway. Now we sit and complain that too many are being buried. Instead, should tanneries not be the ones working out how to stop this?

We are correctly fighting for a proper definition of leather, but we must not allow this very definition to entrap our own capabilities for expansion and growth. At this critical juncture, we must not trap ourselves with inertia. Quoting Bessant again “unless organisations are prepared to change what they offer and how they create and deliver that offering - they may simply not be around in the long term.”

Let us be clear that in a mature market marketing is wasted without innovation, except, if you want to compete on price alone - and price is a battle leather will lose.

Mike Redwood
July 22, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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