January 5, 2006

The second reason for the lack of innovation is that we, the general public are conservative in our demands of the construction industry. As long as we want to live in houses that are built of brick, with oak beams and slate tiled roofs, that is what we will get. In theory we could all live very efficiently under the ground in modern apartments burrowed 20 feet under, but we are not rabbits and we haven’t started to think like them yet.

Innovation in Construction

The third reason, for the lack of innovation is entirely the fault of the construction industry. The industry is poor at understanding the needs of the market. This is partly the result of the way the industry is organized. Brick manufacturers don’t sell to the public – they sell to merchants who sell to builders who in turn sell to the public after the intervention of an architect. In other words it is a convoluted line of communication from the manufacturer to the people who drive the market. Manufacturers of plastic pipe sell to merchants who sell to plumbers who in turn do the work for the general public who frankly have no idea if the products are appropriate for the job. This means that there is very little incentive to innovate. Most manufacturers of construction materials ask themselves the question “why do something different unless you have to?â€?.

The myopic answer is certainly that you don’t have to do anything really. You can get by without innovations unless the government comes along and introduces a new regulation. In the last few years many of these regulations have been related to the need to make energy savings. Take the boiler industry for example. From April of this year the new regulations demand that all new boiler installations in houses must be high efficiency condensing boilers. The industry has not taken easily to this change. Plumbers in particular have dragged their heels. Condensing boilers are a more sophisticated product to install so why should an installer take on these extra worries when there is more money to be made fitting Mrs Jones’ new £15,000 bathroom make-over?

If a company does take an initiative and do things differently and innovate, it can steal a march. Take Kingspan for example. Here is a company that has spent time looking at new opportunities rather than resorting to ‘taking the easy route’. It has risen to the challenge of offering new and innovative products instead of using traditional building practices and materials. And it has profited as a result, growing in size and dominating the sectors in which it plays.

Innovation in Construction

How does a company become innovative? First of all it needs to have a mind set to be bold and to be different. Moreover, it needs to listen and learn. Customers are a fertile source of new ideas. They are the users of products. It is they that suffer their inadequacies, often to the point where they make their own modifications to improve them. Regular contact with customers, especially feedback from trained sales engineers, is an excellent source of new ideas. A product improvements which was developed in collaboration with the customer has the added advantage of locking the customer in as the two companies work together and a specification is drawn up which favours the entrenched supplier. The use of sales engineers in generating new product ideas will only work if it is given the constant encouragement of management. It will not work as a one off exercise for, as already stated a company needs to have a culture of being innovative and doing things differently. Innovation is not the sort of thing that can be flagged up as this month’s good idea – it must be there for the long term.

Competitors too can stimulate new product ideas. Companies so often fall into a routine, producing designs and using production methods which are seldom challenged. The examination of competitors’ products and internal questioning by the technicians who strip the products down and analyze them may beget new ideas. It is important that the technicians have an open mind and are prepared to criticize their own practices, accepting that there is almost certainly a better way of making their product.

Focus groups with architects or tradesmen also can flush out un-met needs and can be used to test concepts or prototype products before they get to market. Their cost is inconsequential in the total context of a new product development programme and it ensures that what ever is created is in line with market needs.