Tuesday 23 December 2014

Breakthrough Innovation

Dr Bryan Haynes, Director of Global Enterprise Research and Engineering, Global Nonwovens, Kimberly-Clark (USA) made the case for increasing the rate of innovation in general and in nonwovens in particular. Times were a changing, and it was not, to paraphrase Charles Darwin, the strongest that survive, it was those most responsive to change: 
  • By 2022 China will be spending more on R&D than the USA. 
  • R&D has to become more efficient: more profitable innovations without budget increases. 
  • Breakthrough innovation is the key, and Open Innovation is the way forward. 
  • Academia can contribute more and is searching for future R&D role. 
  • Nonwovens technical institutes can bridge the gap between academic and industrial research. 
K-C have led product differentiation with unique features such as loop fasteners, stretch ears and breathable backsheets for diapers while reducing costs by pioneering the use of new materials such as spunbond and SMS nonwovens. New fabrics will require new raw materials, new processes and new after-treatments, but the returns make such investments worthwhile. Considering Reicofil with 300 beam installations for diapers in the last 10 years there is clearly a case for more investment in process technology.

All companies will benefit from global population growth and the ageing of the population, but to be really successful you have to expand into new “adjacent” territories and remain open to “transformational” innovation - inventing for markets that don’t yet exist. For K-C their development of spunbond housewrap was a good example of moving into adjacent territory.

What would be transformational in the nonwoven industry? With raw materials being the major source of costs and benefits, Dr Haynes thought improving the sustainability (reduce, reuse, recycle) of those materials would be the key. Basis weights of nonwovens and diaper weights could be further reduced by moving from melt-blowns to nanofibre nonwovens, and ultra-absorbents for example. However the problem of diaper waste, with 1.4 billion diapers a day being used globally, was not going to go away and the recycling of disposables or the use of biodegradable materials would be needed. Once again there appeared to be a need for “new to the world” process development and rapid progress from prototypes to commercial reality. With only 10% of R&D projects going commercial there was a need for many new programs and as a consequence many more failures. Failing faster, more cheaply and more often was the key!

Our industry must now think big, focus on open innovation and transformational technology, and minimise the costs of development by partnerships, including those with global academia and technical institutes. Large markets for nonwovens could emerge from the demand for cleaner water, air and energy.

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