A few years ago Timbmet launched a really good new product; an oak laminated stair string with some very clever engineered veneer work on the faces to give the impression of a fourteen foot, clear board. Development of the product took a lot of local market knowledge combined with much globe trotting to find three specialist suppliers; one for the core, one for the veneers and one for the assembly.
Initially the market reception was luke warm but, backed by some expensive marketing, a lot of energy and crucially a very good design, the product found a market and began to sell well. Not very many months later competitors brought out their own cheaper imitations and even though the quality never quite matched ours in no time at all the product was being traded as a commodity. We never did make good money on our strings which by the way we still sell.
I was reminded of the story as I strolled around the Ecobuild exhibition yesterday. In my mind I was comparing the incredible innovation I saw in certain product sectors with the frankly rather stale offerings of the hardwood sector. Is this because timber has little to offer? Not likely, as we all keep reminding the market it's the most environmentally friendly product one can use and incredibly diverse in its properties.
Why then the lack of good designs? Credit crunch aside one can only conclude that the topic we have mastered least as an industry is how to protect a good idea. We seem to have made an art form of copying (undermining?) innovation but we don't seem to know how to combine the crafts of creating a new product with the challenge of protecting it from the ravages of a free market.
The impact is a double whammy. As someone who loves innovation it dawned on me that my stairy tale has made me very cautious of investing, which is a great shame because I know of lots of great ideas for superior forest products that desperately need to be marketed. If only we could protect the designs more effectively we could make these products viable.
The good news is that even if we have become somewhat risk averse we continue to experiment with new ideas. I suppose the ultimate challenge is to develop products that are so clever it takes a lot more time and energy to copy them.