Traditionally, battery innovation has been hampered by lack of industry collaboration between the more theoretical, academic field and the consumer-oriented commercial field. Here, Rob Phillips looks back at a presentation about innovation strategy he delivered to the MedTec Olympia trade show in May 2014 to help find a way forward.
Delivering high quality, well tested battery solutions for an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) requires both an academic mindset, with a view on the long-term future of battery technology, and a commercial one, based on providing the best product currently available.
While Moore’s Law dictates computing power doubles every two years, battery technology does not experience the same kind of exponential growth. Therefore, innovation in the field must revolve around quality of design and how we integrate and configure the various technological elements of the battery to meet the requirements of a customer.
Innovation strategy is split into two areas, product innovation and process innovation. Product innovation is driven by gaps in the market; such as product or service opportunities that are currently unfulfilled or the challenges and opportunities created by changing regulations or legislation for example.
One such challenge had to be overcome by Accutronics when developing the Entellion Intelligent Power Vault system. The medical application it was designed for required a battery with an output of more than 100Wh, meaning that after it was tested to the UN 38.3 ‘T1-T8’ test it would have had to be transported as Class nine dangerous goods. Splitting the battery into smaller, modular units avoided that issue and brought with it a host of other benefits. Sometimes it’s the things that seem the most limiting that prompt the most innovative ideas.
Process innovation is something that is traditionally not explored as much as product innovation, but it is just as integral to overall innovation strategy. In our industry, it is informed by the never-ending drive for portable devices and their batteries to be smaller, lighter and more powerful.
With smartphone development as an example it seems increasingly the case that battery design comes late in the overall design process. Form-factor and weight are given priority consideration, leading to compromises on battery life, performance and longevity. With the recent rise of wearable technology there is more pressure than ever before to deliver battery solutions that meet the apparently conflicting needs of form and function.
The key is to move battery design up the design process food chain, which at Accutronics we do through technology development meetings with customers. At its heart, our approach to our supply chain is holistic, from design and production through to international distribution and after-sale support. Traditionally, efficiency improvements concentrated on the manufacturing stage alone, but we aim to make improvements in every stage.
When putting an innovation strategy in place it can be difficult, with existing customers to serve, to generate the resources needed. One way to solve this problem in the UK is to apply for a grant from the Technology Strategy Board’s Innovation Voucher scheme.
The TSB is a government-established scheme aiming to stimulate innovation in order to accelerate economic growth in the UK through various partnership and funding schemes, in line with recommendations from the 2013 Perkins Review. In our case, the Innovation Voucher allowed us access to a partnership with Aston University and gave us a first taste of the partnering and collaboration approach to R&D.
Another way the TSB manages relationships between industry and academia is through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), an initiative helping UK businesses access the knowledge and expertise available in universities. After the success of the Innovation Voucher scheme Accutronics participated in a KTP with Aston University to help develop and implement an innovative continuous improvement programme with customer requirements, from quality and flexibility to price control, at its core. The main outcome from this project was a long-term process improvement tool that enables us to keep satisfying customers and to rapidly model and respond to emerging opportunities.
A secondary, very welcome, outcome was the KTP associate himself. While we brought our production and operation practices into the 21st century and gained a good method for continually prioritising, the associate was also so good we ultimately offered him a full time post. The partnership itself contributed over £76k to company profit and over £941k to company sales per year, but along with that we have gained a well qualified, enthusiastic individual who works in the business every day. These innovation schemes are some of the most effective ways of driving innovation in your business and the partnerships you develop can help turbo-charge your innovation programme. There is a general tone of uncertainty in SME circles concerning academic support, with fears that it is too intellectual, outdated or impractical. In reality, partnering with academic institutions is a move that benefits both parties, and in our own experience, was a great way of keeping our work customer focused.