“An optimist expects his dreams to come true; a pessimist expects his nightmares to.”

— J.P. Lawrence

Do these problems sound familiar? You are finding yourself in a commodity business with rapidly decreasing margins. Once the leader in your industry, you now have competition coming out of the woodwork.

Welcome to some of the that Brooks Stevens Inc. faced in the last few years.

Brooks Stevens is an iconic brand launched in Milwaukee during the last century. It set the tone and provided leadership for industrial design of consumer products. Just think about some of the examples that Brooks Stevens gave the world: the Hiawatha train, the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, the Excalibur car, and the first hybrid car in the 1970s.

Brooks Stevens built a solid business serving customers by providing innovative engineering and design solutions. But they were really up against it in 2010. The problem was that the manufacturing sector in the United States was cratering. On top of that, Brooks Stevens was digesting serious problems due to an unfortunately timed merger.

How did they figure out how to survive? Instead of focusing on developing the latest brilliant product, they looked at the process they used to do business and serve customers. They had to think of better ways of engaging their customers and attracting new customers in a difficult market.

Corporations are like people. They develop habits. Those habits prevent them from seeing unique and different solutions to production problems. In fact, companies frequently are too close to a problem causing them to write off potential solutions.

However, Brooks Stevens knew that when it came into a difficult situation it should come without blinders and bring a fresh perspective learned from their experience with multiple industries. It had developed a core skill that allowed them to break down boundaries and create innovative solutions for clients.

“ innovation is not always about the latest new iPad or light bulb. It can also be about improving the process”

So when they faced the challenging 2010 market, they took that core skill set and fine-tuned their approach to how they listened to customers. Ultimately they defined a market opportunity built around helping manufacturers solve problems that they could not solve on their own.

For example, Sauer-Danfoss came to Brooks to develop a new series of joysticks used to operate machinery.

Brooks created a multi-continental design research study that identified surprising regional differences in use from an ergonomic and an interfacing perspective. They visited different regions for research because Sauer- Danfoss had an assumption that people viewed technology differently. For example, Houston used simpler joysticks with little or no buttons on the joystick. Houston also had a lot of Hispanic workers, many of whom had smaller hands. This was important to incorporate into the ergonomics. Meanwhile, Europe’s joystick was very advanced with many buttons and complex scenarios of use. So they attached a camera into the cab to film people while they worked. The result revealed three different types of operators that used the joystick in unique ways.

In a nutshell, a multi-continental design research study showed that there were different types of operators that used the joystick differently from an ergonomic and an interfacing perspective. These discoveries guided exploration, and several drawings and clay models were designed. Six concepts were selected and created into models for handson validation research.

After presenting the research report to Sauer-Danfoss, they said something along this line, “Now we get it!”

During BSI’s concept exploration stage, their team created many clay ergonomic models with sketch supports that went through many iterations and reviews. They collaborated with Sauer- Danfoss and narrowed it down to six concepts to be tested through validation research.

Validation models were molded, and urethane castings with finger function switches were installed. Next they went back into the field to evaluate the designs to determine how the end-users interacted with the new concepts.

They even filmed the operators. But this time they had the workers watch themselves in the video so they could witness their new behaviors with the various new concept models. They went deep to validate these models: allowing the operators to handle the concept joysticks right next to their current ones for comparison. For further validation, they held a workshop at Sauer-Danfoss to rate concepts on brand language and manufacturing.

That feedback was incorporated into refined concepts, ready for final ergonomic evaluation and BSI engineering solutions. Brooks assisted in mechanical design for manufacturing and assembly, production design and support.

Sauer Danfoss launched the JS7000 series of joysticks at the 2011 ConExpo in Vegas, where a team from Brooks was able to see the results of their in-depth collaboration. The new family of joysticks was displayed, creating a lot of very positive buzz.

The Cheetah Joystick gives operators improved comfort, ease of control and more configurations. The strength of the product came from understanding the end-users and translating their needs into design solutions.

Remember, innovation is not always about the latest new iPad or light bulb. It can also be about improving the process of identifying customers’ needs and solving them in unique ways.

What does this mean for your business? Look at your processes and see if you can improve those first before you expend major capital dollars on a whole new product or service. It could open up an exciting new opportunity for you!