Welcome to our new LinkedIn newsletter “The Better Way”!
Each month, we aim to speak to individuals across the commercial interior sector who like us, are passionate about improving sustainability through innovation and industry collaboration.
We’ll be finding out what their approach is to doing things “The Better Way” and asking them to share best practice, thoughts and views.
Based in Pennsylvania, USA, Brian has been serving the wood products and flooring industries for over 20 years, including executive R&D and innovation positions at Armstrong Flooring and AHF Products.
He is widely considered one of the wood flooring industry’s leading technical experts in the construction, performance, testing and analysis of engineered, hybrid rigid and solid wood flooring.
Q – Tell us more about the Floor Covering Institute (FCI). And what’s prompted its recent change in emphasis?
Our goal with FCI is to create a platform that enables a real-time virtual trade show for the global flooring industry.
We identified that there’s a void in the market when it comes to innovation, technology sharing and networking.
So we wanted to bring together members from different areas of the industry in a very collaborative way. We will have regular webinars, networking and educational events where the audience can interact live.
We’ve had great feedback so far from our initial events
“it’s a really organic, very easy and open way for folks to get information very quickly in areas that they’re interested in.”
Q – In your experience, what are the key success factors when it comes to innovation and product commercialisation?
It’s very simple. If you can’t articulate the consumer need upfront, then you have no chance of success.
It’s all about identification of a problem or need, and then not being prescriptive about how that need is satisfied.
Let’s say, for example, I’m a polymer adhesive manufacturer, yet our customers have a need for non-adhesive flooring installation. We know what the high-level need is. We also know what our strength is … but they don’t want that anymore.
There are many different models to approach this but a very effective one is the funnel process.
The first step is to understand what the landscape looks like. Who else is providing technologies in that space? There might be 500 ideas out there that are not adhesive.
Then these ideas are whittled down to potentially a handful of ideas based on metrics such as ease of implementation, projected cost and revenue etc
Those ideas then need to go through technical feasibility, which is a lot of work. It may well involve reaching out to experts outside of the organisation making similar products but maybe with different applications to understand whether the idea makes sense technically.
Inevitably, a lot of those ideas are going to get thrown out technically as we learn more about the concept and as you move down the funnel.
It’s a faster, more efficient way to do innovation, because you don’t have a preconceived notion of what an innovation looks like.
Oftentimes, companies waste so much time and money by doing all this work, and then getting to the end and finding out something very simple that should have been asked six or eight months ago that kills it.
To me, the best money anyone can spend in research and development innovation is on the very front end, it’s getting out and talking to customers.
Understanding what it is you’re looking for early on is the most important thing.
Q – What role does a company’s approach to open innovation play?
The larger organisations I work with tend to be all out on open innovation on the front end, or they’re the absolute opposite. There is no in between. But I think the closed innovation model is dying a slow death as these companies, whether they like it or not, are being forced to go outside.
To me, that’s where the true power and the best innovation comes from. Because if one company focuses so much time with “the blinkers on”, they can’t see, or they don’t want to see, what’s going on outside. Technology overtakes them because they can only do so much and they can only think a certain way.
I think you’ll see less and less of it as we move further into the future.
Q – And what skills do individuals need to be successful innovators?
I think very few people, from a personality and a mentality perspective can handle true innovation work. You’re either cut to do it, or you’re not. It’s very difficult for someone to be trained to be an innovator.
They need to have the ability to forward think and put forward their own beliefs and hypotheses about how things should work. And being astute enough to recognise the ideas and concepts that could turn into big things.
Being willing to be wrong, most of the time, and able to learn from what has happened to adjust and move forward is crucial.
It’s very cliche, but it couldn’t be more true – the biggest learnings that you have are from your biggest mistakes. They have been in my career, but it’s the ability to remember them and say, what did we do wrong that time that caused that? And how are we going to make sure that we account for that in the next time we go back to the think tank?
Persistence when you are told no is a big part of it as well. Oftentimes, people can’t see concepts straight away but continuing to push past boundaries is key.
Q – Moving on to your work in wood flooring – what advances in technology do you see in that category?
There are a few areas
- coating development
- wood modification
The focus for coatings is always on water resistance. When water lays on top of a wood flooring plank, it will inevitably get down between the cracks which is never good so topical water and abrasion resistance is a big thing.
Here in North America, coating aesthetics are very matte, low gloss, almost looking like a dry finish. But it’ll be interesting to see what the next trend is – it ebbs and flows and usually starts in Europe.
For installation, everyone wants the easiest way to install a product.
Some click locks are really good, but they also have a lot of downfalls. Particularly if they are some irregularities underneath a floating system, you get hollow spots. And the reality of sub floors is that they’re never, or rarely flat, which is a big issue on the residential side that people are becoming more aware of.
IOBAC and some other systems out there are very easy for the residential installer. In my opinion, they are much more robust and easier to install than the current click locks.
Plus for homeowners, replaceability a big thing. People are all about ease and modification of their system and they want to do it themselves. It’s too much work to cut boards out.
Q – How much does sustainability enter the conversation?
It’s been a bigger focus commercially and for a longer period of time than residentially here. It’s much more in the minds of architects, designers, contractors and specifiers – everybody really is looking for those elements. And it’s almost expected in certain parts of the market.
Flooring manufacturers have take-back programmes trying to mitigate the amount of used flooring going into landfill. But you always have the issues with contamination from adhesives and different chemicals that have been used on the sub floor that come up through the adhesives into the tile over time.
But now also residentially, consumers are asking questions around environmental footprint, and how and where wood products are harvested. The product must still look good and be in the right price range, but being produced locally is also an important buying factor.
Q – And finally, what’s your one wish for the flooring industry in the future?
Easy installation really is the key to the future of flooring.
In North America, our legacy flooring installer network has diminished significantly over the past 15-20 years. People just aren’t coming into that trade any more so we have to come up with solutions that make it easier for consumers to install their own products.
And right now, installation is not much easier than it was 20 years ago. The way it’s done is very, very hard work.
It’s going to be the key to the future. Whoever gets there first, will have the greatest impact.
It’s all about showing and telling and making people believe that there’s an easier, yet robust way to install flooring.