By Elizabeth Feather, director of research, Upstate SC Alliance
There’s no doubt about the aim of Techtronics Industries (TTI), an Upstate company that designs and manufactures power equipment under the brands Ryobi, Ridgid, and Homelite.
“If it has a cord, we want to make it cordless,” says Vice President of Innovation Porter Whitmire. “We specialize in lithium-ion battery power.”
The Anderson County industry has seen tremendous success in its pursuit of a cordless world, with more than 10 percent growth year over year for 10 years and $6 billion in annual sales. To keep up the streak, the manufacturer has adapted its business model to incorporate open innovation, a collaborative strategy emphasizing a free flow of ideas from internal, external, and unexpected sources.
Whitmire shared the company’s open innovation story during the April 11 Upstate SC Alliance Coffee & Conversation. Encouraging Upstate businesses to embrace transformational new business practices is a goal of the Upstate Global Competitiveness Council, and TTI’s success paints a detailed picture of open innovation’s benefits.
The thinking behind open innovation is that diverse perspectives yield a profitable breadth of ideas. Such intentional innovation provides value to customers by developing products that “meet their pain point” or specific problem, Whitmire says.
TTI leads the industry in lithium-ion battery technology; it’s a company with a slew of patents and experienced, creative thinkers. Even so, says Whitmire, innovation works best when inspiration also comes from the world beyond a research and development lab’s walls.
“We never want to go in with a ‘me too’ product,” Whitmire notes. “We always want to have a true differentiator, a fresh concept.” To compete effectively, TTI expanded its pool of brainpower from only its R&D department to a larger sphere.
Encouraging outside voices to chime in on TTI’s creative process was a “leap,” Whitmire says, but “it boils down to being flexible and exploring alternative avenues for new business. Putting more ideas into our funnel can only be a good thing.”
To maximize the number of ideas that turned into profit-generating products, TTI opened its virtual doors and invited innovators in.
The company developed ION (Innovation Outreach Network), an open innovation program targeting three primary audiences: TTI employees, universities, and inventors or other companies with applicable ideas or technology. “We want to know where the pain is and what problems we can solve for our customers, so it helps to cast a wide net.”
One example of a product rooted in open innovation: the Ryobi garage-door opener. It’s not just any garage-door opener: In addition to offering battery backup to power the device during grid outages, ideas submitted through the ION program led to the creation of accessory modules like a power cord reel, laser parking assistant, and Bluetooth speakers. These accessories increase the utility of the garage door opener and address user needs in the garage.
TTI’s “visionary leadership” backed the program from the start, Whitmire says. “We never could have pursued open innovation at this level without buy-in from the top.” Pursuing open innovation required “a strong commitment” up front, he adds, but the company’s calculated risk paid off as ideas rolled in and creative juices started flowing.
Open innovation began internally, and as ideas were shared openly across departments, the strategy quickly bore fruit. Another innovation was the Arctic Cove bucket-top mister — Home Depot’s signature orange Homer bucket with a battery-powered fan and mister on top — that was patented and has been a top seller for three years. Smiling, Whitmire notes the brainchild came from a member of TTI’s social media team, someone who would normally not be involved in the product idea process.
To elicit innovation externally, TTI launched PowerToolInnovation.com, a website devoted to providing a means for independent inventors to submit ideas to TTI. “We get thousands of submissions a year, and the best ones are presented to the executive committee for development consideration and possible licensing.”
TTI partners with Clemson University’s mechanical engineering undergraduate program, harnessing the collective creativity of up-and-coming product designers and engineers.
“It gives them an experience where they can get their hands dirty. We throw in hot glue, tons of tools, and a challenge they have to solve. It’s where the rubber meets the road,” Whitmire adds.
The heart of open innovation, Whitmire says, is an understanding that “you don’t have to have years of real-world experience” or technical know-how to contribute valuable ideas.
“While we look at engineers, industrial designers, and marketing students as prospective employees, we also need hands-on folks,” he adds. “We want people who use their hands to build something, not just dream it up. That kind of problem-solving cannot be duplicated on paper or by a computer.”