Why SMEs must be more proactive with big corportations

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Recently named as one of the UK’s ‘Faces of a Vibrant Economy’*, Kieron Salter, pictured above, thinks SMEs possess huge untapped potential to transform our economy. As founder of high performance engineering consultancy KWSP, Kieron believes SMEs need to be more proactive when it comes to engaging with big corporations, who can learn a lot from their more dynamic counterparts.  

Think about some of the greatest names in engineering and innovation. Automotive icon Henry Ford, jet inventor Frank Whittle, or industrial maverick James Dyson – all people who have fundamentally changed our lives through their personal vision, drive and ambition to succeed. All three made their unique contributions despite a lack of interest or contempt from investors at the time. While the young Ford had lost credibility following the failure of several businesses, Whittle’s idea of the jet engine fell short of securing initial backing of the RAF and Dyson went through 5,126 failed prototypes before getting it right. All went on to change the world.

My experiences, coupled with observations on industrial history, leads me to conclude three things:

  • Innovative thinking (otherwise known as ‘disruptive’) is a vital component of any healthy economy
  • Risk-adverse corporations and investors view new ideas with suspicion, preferring to stick to tried and tested solutions
  • Successful innovators should expect rejection and knock-backs as a typical part of the development process

KWSP began life as an engineering design business, focused on the motorsport and industrial automation markets. Over the past three years, we have widened that strategy to become a much more broader engineering consultancy, embracing the ideas of Industry 4.0 (digital manufacturing) and horizontal innovation (transposing technologies and processes from one industry to another to solve problems).

This shift has seen us grow into a multi-national team of more than 25 including manufacturing expertise, project management and highly-qualified design engineers. Our client base is also more varied, now including F1 teams, FMCG brand names, major industrial conglomerates and several research bodies. We’ve achieved this step change by offering big businesses two things – external rapid development and prototyping and state-of-the-art process improvement.

We’ve found that 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 have the understanding of new technologies of manufacturing processes to push forward with new product developments, or they don’t have the freedom to operate innovatively or take risks. This is where nimble, fast moving SMEs can deliver huge value. With a constant flow of new ideas and processes coming in and out of our doors, we’re able to remain at the forefront of new developments.

A good example of this approach in action concerns a textile 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.

Secondly, we are increasingly working with major industrial businesses to help them understand how digital processes can be introduced into traditionally analogue manufacturing production lines. Typically, this involves the introduction of digital controls and connectivity (known as Industry 4.0) or emerging technologies (such as 3D printing) into production or prototyping processes.

Automotive component suppliers, for example, are under great pressure from vehicle manufacturers to develop new, lightweight parts more quickly. We’ve worked with several suppliers to help them embrace additive manufacturing techniques into their new product development cycles; reducing time to market, weight, cost and waste.

What can ambitious, fast moving SMEs learn from this experience? In my view, there are four key lessons:

  1. Play to your strengths – Undertake a quick audit of your business to understand where your strengths really lie. In our case, it was a self-belief and ambition borne out of a background in motorsport and the ethos of winning. Most SMEs have bags of skill and knowledge that could be of huge benefit to larger, slow moving monoliths.
  2. Add value – We’ve adopted the idea of horizontal innovation and carved a niche for ourselves in this market. Other SMEs could take this approach and explore ways where they could utilise experience from one sector and implement it in another. Try not to get bogged down by pre-conceived ideas of what works and what doesn’t. We’re currently working on the development of a totally new way of printing Braille, using a novel deposition process. By taking this radical approach, we’re aiming to vastly reduce costs of delivering braille and increase accessibility for blind and partially-sighted people.
  3. Collaborate whenever you can – Knowledge is the most valuable currency in any economy. The more value your company can bring to the table, the more successful it will be. Never underestimate the value of open dialogue and collaboration when pushing the boundaries. Via Innovate UK and European funding Horizon 2020, we have been able to reduce our exposure to risk and more importantly, forged lifelong partnerships.
  4. Adopt early – Every decision you make in business is a risk but, if you can adopt new technologies or processes ahead of the curve, this can give you a big competitive advantage. Our leap into additive and digital manufacturing and horizontal innovation has proven invaluable to the growth of our business.

The much-anticipated UK Industrial Strategy is a long and generally laudable plan in my view. While some critics have lambasted it for being inadequate, it addresses the country’s chronic productivity problems and how SMEs can play their part in improving this issue. SMEs have a significant role to play in bringing about meaningful change to the UK’s industrial base.

Innovative, nimble and efficient.  With a dose of self-belief and ‘can do’ attitude, I am convinced many smaller enterprises out there could help big businesses to become much more agile – and transform their own businesses in the process.

 *Grant Thornton, Faces of the Vibrant Economy, 2017