Horizontal innovation: What is it and how can it boost the SME community?

Horizontal innovation offers SMEs an untapped growth opportunity, states Kieron Salter, managing director of high performance engineering consultancy KWSP.

While SMEs are well versed in the concept of sharing skills, horizontal innovation takes this a step further, accessing skills from one sector and applying them to a completely different field. Not only can this create immediate results, but it is often more cost effective and easier than having to embark on individual research and development programmes.

The motorsport industry has pioneered horizontal innovation for many years, lending its innovative technologies and engineering capabilities to other sectors to overcome challenges associated with rapid product development and innovation fatigue. This is helping to inject fresh ideas and processes into such diverse industries as defence, rail, aerospace and production automotive.

Although the process of taking existing technologies and applying them directly to other applications exists within the SME community, it often happens on an ad-hoc basis. The UK is world-renowned for its creativity and innovation, but not so well regarded for the subsequent commercialisation of new ideas. By integrating horizontal innovation into the culture and DNA of small businesses, this challenge can quickly be overcome.

In 2017 alone, there were 5.7 million SMEs registered in the UK, representing 99 per cent of all businesses. SMEs are agile and flexible enough to harness the benefits of horizontal innovation, whereas larger businesses are not so well positioned. Once you get inside big corporations, many of them suffer from innovation fatigue. Their staff have often run out of new ideas or simply no longer understand new technologies or processes to push forward new product development. Many lack the freedom to operate innovatively or take risks. This is where nimble, fast-moving SMEs can deliver huge value.

A good example of horizontal innovation in action concerns a textiles business that wanted to introduce digital printing into its production process. This would enable customers to choose completely individual designs for textiles, at marginal cost. The company had tried to develop the technology in-house but, due to the technical demands of the new process, had faced ongoing challenges.

Within just weeks of being approached, we had introduced the client to a totally new way of manufacturing the digital printer, which reduced its weight significantly and made the project not only viable, but more advanced. The process for this came from an altogether different pocket of industry but added just as much value in the textiles sector as it did in more traditional additive manufacturing processes.

Taking innovation from multiple industries

Another example of taking a horizontal innovation approach can be seen in the design and manufacture of a first-of-kind Wind Tunnel, specifically for cycling. This is the main feature of the new Boardman Bikes Performance Centre in Evesham, Worcestershire. The building, which has been designed to enable both professional and amateur athletes to test their bikes and develop their most efficient riding position, contains the UK’s first cycling specific-wind tunnel. For years, the cost of wind tunnel testing had been prohibitive for the vast majority of cyclists, but the Wind Tunnel within the Boardman centre overcomes this challenge, promising to make performance testing accessible to all.

A solution usually reserved for the automotive and motorsport industries, KWSP took the aerodynamic performance and data acquisition properties of automotive wind tunnels and incorporated them into a new design, specifically for bikes. The aerodynamic force measurements of the wind tunnel cover drag, force, pitch and roll, with data acquisition delivering transient output of forces and moments, similar to any vehicle wind tunnel.

The project saw KWSP bring together skills from three different sectors to deliver a complete cycling solution; motorsport (through its experience of aerodynamic performance, testing and traditional wind tunnel design), sports technology (through experience working with athletes and analysis of what drives improved performance), and digital manufacturing (where it has developed expertise in complex controls, automation and actuation from large scale manufacturing systems, used to physically control the ergo and deal with complex data capture).

This approach enabled KWSP to inject the cycling industry with a new affordable and innovative approach to wind tunnel testing. The Boardman wind tunnel allows customers to complete more aerodynamic development and validation testing with the advantage of guaranteed, repeatable conditions; something usually reserved for professional cyclists.

The Boardman wind tunnel project represents a different approach to horizontal innovation. By taking the technologies and design disciplines of very similar industries and rightsizing them for another, the cost of innovation can be kept comparatively low.

We looked at what we didn’t need for this project; a rolling road was not necessary, and we didn’t need to test at 150 miles an hour. After stripping out these functions, we looked at how we could design the fan to offer high performance testing and measurable feedback, without incurring the costs associated with traditional wind tunnel design, installation, and usage.

Horizontal innovation in healthcare and F1

These are just two examples, but there are several that SMEs can choose from for evidence that horizontal innovation can be highly effective. In the healthcare sector, advanced equipment commonly used in motorsport is being integrated into incubators to record and store important data as new-borns are transferred between wards and hospitals. G forces and vibrations experienced by babies are indicating important information pertaining to heart rate and blood pressure.

Similar horizontal innovation is also being used by major supermarkets, which are harnessing the application of Formula One technology and materials to reduce the energy consumed by industrial refrigerators. A new retrofit aerofoil system has been proven to retain more cold air inside the refrigerator than other materials, resulting in significant energy and cost savings.

As a business community, SMEs have just started on the journey of horizontal innovation and have barely touched the iceberg of the possibilities that it can deliver. By integrating this philosophy into company culture, the UK’s small businesses can help drive innovation to larger corporations and help the nation develop a reputation for innovative commercialism once again.

Kieron Salter is managing director of KWSP.

Further reading on innovation

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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