By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Have you ever wondered how the myriad of new products emanating annually from Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corporation, parent of such brands as PetSafe® and Invisible Fence®, are conceived?
In one sense, the process is not much different from other industries – understanding the customer and anticipating the market. There is, however, one important distinction.
“We have two customers – the pet owner and the pet,” Chris Mainini, Vice President for Innovation and Quality, explained. “It’s much more important today than five years ago to understand the consumers and what they will buy.”
We sat down recently with Mainini and two of his colleagues – Bill Groh, Principal Mechanical Engineer, and Rick Seltzer, Senior Electrical Engineer – to understand the manner in which ideas are conceived, vetted and, if viable, brought to market.
One of the important developments we came to understand is how much the corporation’s innovation process has been impacted by a big change that most of us have observed over the past few years. It is the increase in the number of indoor pets.
“The relationship between the pet and its owner has changed dramatically,” Mainini said. “When did you last see a doghouse?”
It is this dynamic marketplace of increasing demand for pet products where Mainini and his team vet ideas from two perspectives – technical feasibility and market size. The ideas themselves come from a variety of places including customers, retailers, Radio Systems team members, and focus groups.
Ideas that make it to the prototype stage go through a rigorous testing process that includes data collection and observations. We watched one potential new product being used by a dog wearing a collar that generated 600 pieces of data a second.
“We have a number of pet behaviorists that help us vet processes for testing,” Mainini explained. His team also has access to the PetSafe Village, where owners allow their pets to be observed, and even the pets of Radio Systems employees. The corporation allows well-behaved dogs to come to work with their owners.
“We get lots of input,” Mainini says. To help handle product ideas from both internal associates and outside inventors, the company has put into place an idea submission process that adds a twist to brainstorming.
“It’s called IMS, the Idea Management System” said Anita White, Associate Director of Innovations. The system sits inside the internal intranet web application and allows associates to post their ideas, and not just for new products, but for product improvements, brand awareness/social engagement and business improvement ideas.
After an idea is posted, the system allows all other associates, worldwide, to add comments and “follow” and “like” the idea in a social environment. Using this social aspect has given Radio Systems the ability to have a worldwide brainstorming session and build upon ideas that otherwise may have only have been spoken about briefly with less merit that the idea should have gotten.
This is just another way the company is ensuring its culture of innovation continues to grow and evolve.
Once the innovation team has done its work, the winning ideas are transferred to individuals in the strategic business units and merged with their pipeline of products for commercialization.
The corporation’s innovation process has also changed dramatically as a result of the product diversification that has occurred since the initial focus on electrical fencing when Randy Boyd founded the company in 1991.
Today, the Radio Systems brands are industry leaders in the management of pet behavior, offering pet training, containment, safety, and lifestyle products. These offerings include kennels and electronic underground fences, bark control systems, a selection of remote training products, pet doors, automatic litter cleaning systems, fresh water fountains and pet feeders.
Radio Systems creates a considerable amount of intellectual property, currently holding about 450 issued patents. These innovative ideas are spawned throughout a company having more than 60 individual inventors.
As any inventor knows, some product innovation occurs quickly, while other concepts take more time. One of the corporation’s newer offerings is Pawz Away®, the equivalent of a baby gate that blocks pets from climbing steps.
“It was not easy,” Mainini said of the product’s development. “We tried lots of things before finding the right approach.”
An emerging area of interest to the Radio Systems innovation team is additive manufacturing, frequently referred to as 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
“We are working on one project to reduce the cost of plastic parts,” Groh said. “We have partnered with the MDF (Manufacturing Development Facility operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory) and Mountain Mold in Sevierville.”
The goal is faster cooling during production, faster processing, and a lower cost for the parts.