Direct from the front line

Thwarted shoplifters can blame Dr Mike Crossfield. Those electronic security labels that shops stick on anything worth stealing are his idea. Try to take goods through the door without paying and the sound of the alarm is a powerful reminder of the good product development job Crossfield and his team of engineers at Scientific Generics […]

Thwarted shoplifters can blame Dr Mike Crossfield. Those electronic security labels that shops stick on anything worth stealing are his idea. Try to take goods through the door without paying and the sound of the alarm is a powerful reminder of the good product development job Crossfield and his team of engineers at Scientific Generics did for one client.

Not only did the Cambridge-based consultancy develop the innovative technology of the thin-film label and radio detector system, but it also worked hard at making sure the client got the lowest possible product manufacturing cost. As a result, when Esselte Meto’s electronic article surveillance system was launched in 1990, it rapidly became the market leader.

But that is only the beginning of the story. ‘You can’t do it once and say it’s done for ever,’ says Crossfield, director of Scientific Generics’ engineering division. ‘You have to continually re-examine your products if you really want to take cost out and stay competitive. You have to keep abreast of developments in all sectors, not just your own.’

That is why in 1995 Crossfield and his team were back at Esselte, pulling apart an already lean product. ‘When we developed the original we had done our best to achieve the lowest manufacturing cost.’ But in five years, technology and the market had moved on. For a start, the product had been so successful that sales volumes were five times as high as forecast in 1990. That meant mass production manufacturing approaches could be tried.

Also, surface mount technology was now widely available for producing circuit boards, and Scientific Generics’ engineers were able to squeeze more components onto smaller boards. ‘We reduced the number of boards from seven to three and added significantly more functionality to make the system easier to install,’ says Crossfield. ‘Overall we cut 25% of the cost out.’

Esselte’s story is typical of the challenge facing manufacturing companies today how to increase the competitiveness of their existing products and those still on the CAD screen. Crossfield calls it the ‘cost challenge’. But it is not one many companies can win on their own, he argues. As one satisfied multinational client told Crossfield: ‘Our own people are too focused on their own business and cannot reason outside familiar paradigms. Generics comes in with a fresh view, can question everything and take a different perspective.’

The result is that despite that client having world-class specialists in a number of key areas, Scientific Generics has managed to produce a 30% cost saving for it.

If you ask companies if they have a formal system for regularly reviewing product costs, most would say yes, suggests Crossfield. ‘But it is all too often done in an isolated way the purchasing department beats the supplier down a penny a tonne on the plastic without looking at the knock-on effect on the whole product.’

Companies are too compartmentalised and this limits new ideas. The different business and engineering functions are too isolated from each other, too blinkered and too specialised, says Crossfield. ‘Departments do their bit and throw the product over the wall to the next one. They can’t see what’s happening in other sectors, other industries. They know more and more about less and less.’

As a result, says Crossfield, people are afraid to open their mouths in case their ideas are slapped down.

Another hurdle to innovation, suggests Crossfield, is that UK firms tend to promote good engineers out of engineering into management where they end up buried in paperwork. That’s why he left Plessey to join Scientific Generics 11 years ago.

Starting as a physics graduate in Plessey’s Caswell Research Centre, Crossfield progressed from research and product development up the ladder to head of marketing at Plessey Microwave. ‘I was promoted away from technology. But here, I can spend time in the lab. And although I’m a director, no one thinks it’s unusual.’

Most companies don’t have the structure to allow innovation to happen, says Crossfield. ‘If you wanted to patent an idea at Plessey, for example, you had to submit a formal application for vetting. It was a real barrier to ideas. It was as if the company saw inventors as a nuisance, a disruption.’

At Scientific Generics, with more than 200 experts from a wide range of disciplines, every idea is treated as a worthwhile input. ‘They can e-mail it round the company, make a prototype, file a patent.’

It’s the easiest thing in the world to register a patent, says Crossfield. ‘It costs £25. Yet most companies have no idea how to protect their intellectual property. They don’t recognise the value of new ideas. At Plessey they handed out ties if you got 10 patents, or whatever, you got a free tie!’

But even the most innovation-friendly companies can find that keeping up with the pace of technological change can be too much for their own resources, says Crossfield.

‘You could easily spend several hundred thousand pounds a year on the latest computer-aided design systems for mechanical, electronic and mould design work, for example.’ Yet most companies aren’t developing new products all the time, he says.

The good news is that there are not really any bad products, says Crossfield. Most are competently designed. It is just that they are not taking advantage of the materials and technology available. His answer? ‘Keep revisiting your products certainly every five years, preferably every three. If you stop, you go backwards.’