Mobile air compressors don’t seem like a product that would be ripe for innovation. After all, they’ve been a staple of the construction industry for decades where they’re used to power tools such as nail guns and jackhammers.
But compressors were so heavy and bulky that they needed to be towed behind a truck. That’s where Vancouver Island’s VMAC came up with a better idea. That idea revolutionized the mobile compressor industry and created a robust international business for VMAC.
The company developed a rotary screw compressor technology in the late 1990s that made air compressors lighter, more powerful and compact enough to fit under the hood of a truck.
"There weren’t a lot of folks pushing the envelope of this technology," says Jim Hogan, former President and co-founder of VMAC. "They were either complacent or not technically savvy enough. So we took advantage of that opportunity."
Solve problems and reach new customers
Today, VMAC’s full line of compressors and systems can be found in thousands of vehicles worldwide. And with a sizeable portion of its workforce focused on R&D, the new products, improvements and efficiencies keep coming. The company, which does most of its design, engineering and manufacturing at a three-hectare facility in Nanaimo, has won multiple awards for its manufacturing excellence and business savvy.
VMAC (Vehicle Mounted Air Compressors) is among the thousands of Canadian companies that are developing new products or improving existing technologies, processes, designs and marketing to solve problems and reach new customers. Now, the challenge is to persuade thousands more to do the same.
Investing is a good first step
How can your business become more innovative? One of the first things you need to consider is investing in your capacity to innovate. In other words, you should invest in things that enable you to constantly improve your products and services, and how you produce them. An investment in information and communication technology is a good place to start.
Innovation can also mean, for example, improving your operational efficiency to cut costs and using that money to buy a new piece of equipment. Or you might try a new marketing idea.
The latter is just what VMAC has done. You wouldn’t expect a manufacturer of air compressors to go hog-wild with Internet marketing. Yet, VMAC has developed a series of YouTube videos—some of them quite original— as a way of generating customer interest in its products.
Have the guts to try
VMAC remains determined to deliver reliable, high performance products that are lightweight, compact and durable.
Constantly changing truck designs keep VMAC on its toes, sometimes with only a few weeks’ notice to adapt their compressor to fit into smaller engine compartments.
"It may sound corny, but you have to think you’re smart and try things,” Hogan says. “If you don’t, your competitors eventually will. The prize goes to the people with the guts to try."
How to adopt an innovation mindset
- Develop an innovation strategy—With your team’s help, develop an innovation strategy detailing how you will improve your products or services, your processes, your marketing strategy, your business model and your supply chain. Then keep it up to date.
- Tap the creativity of your employees—They have intimate knowledge of your business and industry and will often be your best source of ideas.
- Look for ideas and feedback from suppliers, customers and other stakeholders—It could be as simple as changing a process, adapting a product to a new market or exploring new ways to reach customers.
- Invest in capital assets—Especially those that improve your competitiveness like information and communications technology.
- Don’t look for the magic bullet—Focus on continuous incremental improvements.
- Educate yourself—Study innovation, change and creativity. Go to conferences and travel.
- Take action on new ideas—Even if they fail, have faith that you’re on the path to innovation.