Many things drive innovation in our industry, but we are nothing without the creativity and the tenacity of individuals. Ideas start in people's heads. Who are those people? They could be engineers, contractors or architects. They are people just like you.
When you talk about research and development many people picture scientists sitting in a lab creating the next wonder drug, or they may think about the people who come up with the latest and greatest communication technology, but research and development are just as important in the plumbing industry.
Because plumbing is such a mature industry, just about anything you can imagine has already been discovered and manufactured. The innovation coming out of the plumbing industry research and development labs is more likely to be improvements to existing products and adaptations that allow a product to be used in a new environment.
How exactly does innovation come about? How do manufacturers decide what products need to be improved? How long does it take and how much investment goes into it? Who are the people leading the charge? As Vice President of Engineering at J. R. Smith Mfg. Co., I can answer those questions for you as they pertain to improving and enhancing the products you work with every day.
What drives innovation?
Some innovation is driven by construction trends. The green building movement in the U.S. came together in the 1990s. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) started in 1993. This had a big impact on architects and contractors. Manufacturers of all types of building products, not just plumbing manufacturers, saw a market for modified products that would help those architects and contractors reach their green building goals.
Innovation is also driven by government regulation. The most current example being the amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act redefining lead-free as “not more than a weighted average of 0.25% lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures.
Just take into consideration the word “plumber” itself. It comes from the Latin word plumbarius—of or pertaining to lead. Today, manufacturers are tasked with taking lead out of the equation completely when it comes to potable water. The job of research and development is to experiment with different alloys and come up with an end product that meets the new standard. Perhaps not an innovation that will take over the 24-hour news cycle, but a very important one none-the-less.
A good source of innovative ideas is our customers. Sometimes a contractor will come to us with ideas. They run the gamut from a primitive idea in their head to a well-formed solution drawn out on paper. We can take that idea and put our engineers on the task and see if it’s viable.
There are times plumbing contractors come to us simply saying they are tired of not having something they need, and they ask us to look into it. Some of the best ideas come from those people who are on the job and they often being with “I wish there were…” Never hesitate to talk to your distributor or manufacturer and tell them what’s not working and where you think improvements can be made.
What determines which research and development projects move to manufacturing?
There is no can’t when it comes to innovation. With enough creativity and perseverance anything is possible. Yet, many products and product improvements never make it to market. Often it’s economics and the market place that dictate when a project gets shelved.
I say gets shelved because rarely is a product completely forgotten. Some innovation is simply too far ahead of its time, but years down the road a need will arise, and new life is breathed into that idea.
Occasionally a new idea gets shelved because it is simply not cost effective to continue. There is just not enough return on investment. When we talk about investment we’re not only talking about money. Some products will continue to be developed even if there is not a high monetary return but there is added value to the customer.
It’s not a fast process by any means. Improvements can be years in the making. What you start out with can look vastly different from the end product years later. There is always a chance by the time you’re ready to manufacture that enhanced product; the market may have disappeared.
What kind of person works in research and development?
Many people working in research and development didn’t start out there. It’s not so much about a title, but a personality. The research and development department attracts people with creative and unrestricted minds.
A good researcher or development person sees a problem, not as a wall that halts progress, but as a puzzle that doesn’t have a solution—yet. Once they get they set their mind to working on that puzzle, they almost never want to give up finding the solution.
Every company has and needs these people. What’s important is that leadership fosters that creativity and allows them room to work. You need to give them the leeway and support to experiment and let them see what they are capable of accomplishing.
Unlike our engineering friends in the space industry or computing industry, our innovation doesn’t make the front-page news. There are no elaborate product launches, and our phones do not ring off the hook with members of the media trying to catch a big scoop.
Even without this fanfare, those in our industry continue to innovate and come up with even safer ways to provide access to clean water and remove waste in a way that is safe, not only for our families, but for our environment as well.
S. Jerry McDanal, CET, CPD, FASPE
Vice President of Engineering at Jay R. Smith Mfg. Co.
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