Industry’s foremost suppliers should embrace a responsibility to constantly expand their product portfolios, says Doug Stitt, president and CEO, The Caldwell Group Inc.
I’m aware that there has been a product-centricity to this column in recent editions, but it feels like there is scope to provide further guidance for those looking to assess their ability to offer a greater breadth of product—standard or custom.
The overarching theme of this article is that a company’s bottom line is only one consideration when launching those new products, and it isn’t the most important. Of far greater significance, as we will explore, is an unwavering commitment to innovation.
There are a variety of factors that can motivate a supplier to create and launch a new product, beyond the one everyone thinks about in isolation—financial reward. Satisfying an existing demand or a challenge within a customer base is often a variable. Responding to changing trends is another. In the case of our composite products, for example, we were in part reacting to newfound demand for lighter lifting attachments as well as ergonomically friendlier lifters. I’m sure similar trends have been replicated among our readers’ marketplaces.
As we know, standard product development opportunities are those where one addresses multiple customers or markets that are facing the same challenges. Custom solutions, meanwhile, are specific to a particular challenge or application. Sometimes, frequent requests for similar custom solutions call for the development of something more standard that can satisfy a wider group.
In essence, the business model I’m an advocate for is represented by a broad standard offering coupled with a great sales and engineering team that can take experience and intellectual property, and tailor it to a client’s specific needs.
The companies that can do that can change the world.
To first shine a spotlight on customisation, it’s a truism of the custom market that people often focus too narrowly on the product. I always suggest that they take a step back and consider the bigger picture. To me, a manufacturer—in the lifting equipment sector or an end user marketplace—should only actively generate or respond to demand for custom solutions if it aligns with brand strategy. At my company, for example, we want to be identified as an innovative, solutions provider. Thus, delivering customised products isn’t about bottom line results. In fact, there might be a completely different reason to work with a customer on a special product or application.
It might be prudent to proceed with caution if a company is more typically associated with a static, standard offering. Such a range can be tweaked or enhanced, but essentially the business model is based on off-the-shelf products. It can be a case of turning a supertanker to evolve it to become more custom-capable. Consider that the companies that successfully present themselves as true solutions providers or one-stop-shops very often have a 50/50 split between standard and custom business. It’s rarely a case of pulling an engineered solution out of a hat.
It is a hallmark of suppliers / manufacturers who offer custom engineering that they are constantly looking for better ways to do things. Even in marketplaces that are saturated by product, there are always many opportunities to improve them. It frustrates me to hear about suppliers who minimize communication with customers because, as they say, “there’s never anything new” to offer them. That’s nonsense. We have a huge backlog of new products waiting to complete the process before being put to market. And they’re not rebrands or Mark twos and threes; they’re the product (literally) of genuine innovation.
Remember, customisation must become part of a company’s DNA. In other words, if you want something lifted or moved, who can help, regardless of height, weight, environment, etc.?
Never Say Never
As stated, it’s never justifiable to limit contact with a market because of a lack of perceived newness. Think about the speed of evolution in the technological space, for example. Then imagine where 3D printing will be in another five years. How can any sector tread water when all are impacted by such continued improvement? Size isn’t an excuse either. Innovation isn’t only for the big. Take OZ Lifting Products, a company located in Winona, Minnesota, for example. Its composite davit and trolley are two standout examples of modernisation at work.
Nobody can become an innovator overnight. For a start, a company must have the technical resources that truly understand the design requirements of lifting or other products. Additionally, a company needs access to sales, marketing and engineering people who can understand the application or market in which the product will be used—or at least know where to find the right assistance. In the case of our Dura-Lite composite products, it’s a completely different animal so we needed to identify resources with significant experience in certain engineering and the application of industrial adhesives. Once we identified those resources, we paired them up with our in-house team to whom lifting applications are second nature.
Not by way of commercial promotion, but I could use other products as case studies too. SmartSpec is an example of Caldwell using technology along with decades of lifter design expertise to create a way for customers to actually design and price the products that they need securely via the internet. We put our 65+ years of intellectual property at the hands of our customers. We also recently introduced the Renfroe curved jaw clamp that allows users to more safely lift pipe and other types of items that have a curved surface.
Having looked at the necessity to innovate to thrive, it’s important to highlight reasons not to bow to temptation in terms of product creation. Safety can be a principle reason not to consider a development opportunity. A few years back we developed an innovative product line where a lifter allowed the user to rig, set and remotely release rigging gear. One of the safety features is that the item being lifted cannot be released under load. We have had customers ask us to develop versions where the load can be released under load but we have chosen not to participate due to safety concerns. The customer isn’t always right.
Other reasons why a company might want to disregard a potential new product include significant cost of development; a poor fit with existing customers and products; a lack of reasonable access to expertise; and revenue or profit limitations.
In conclusion, it’s always important to market and sell positively. Talk about the positive aspects of your company and products, not the negatives of another’s. We’re lucky; that’s how most good companies in our industry operate. Sometimes one encounters a competitor that appears insecure and seeks to undermine a competitive product, perhaps to deter a customer from using it. Like in life, in most cases this practice comes across as transparent and it should be avoided as a strategy regardless of the products in question being standard or custom.
In future columns, I will address barometers by which to measure the success of product innovation; certification; and other matters related to new equipment.
Doug Stitt Bio
Doug Stitt has been president and CEO of The Caldwell Group Inc. for 15 years. He graduated with a BA at Beloit College, Beloit, WI; and an MBA at Rockford University, Rockford, IL. He served as president of the Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF) in 2016 and was a member of the board of the same association from 2007 to 2016. Caldwell is a member of the Lifting Equipment Engineers Association (LEEA) and an active member and participant in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Material Handling Industry (MHI) and other industry groups.