How our pop-up R&D teams apply their on-the-ground expertise

Coats has always been a leading name in innovation: you don’t get to be a company with a 250-year history unless you keep ahead of developments in the industry.

In the past – like many companies – we ran a traditional standalone research and development (R&D) department. Based in Paisley, this department was responsible for much of our ground-breaking work on colour algorithms which are still used throughout the industry today. That department is now part of the manufacturing side of the business, but the rest of our R&D function has taken a radical turn.

In 2010 we took a fresh look at how R&D worked. While we had no shortage of great ideas, applying those to the business was often not practical. What we needed was a greater synchronicity between the two. So, we decided to embed our R&D function within the business, stripping away the artificial barriers between research and development, and the factory floor.

Today, we run our R&D on a project-by-project basis, with ‘virtual’ teams of experts who are taken from the business and managed by central R&D co-ordinators. Coats R&D Director Andrew Morgan, explains how it works.

‘When deciding where a project should be run we think about if a particular location has a stake in its success and where the relevant skills and the machine resources reside. It’s usually technical people in manufacturing roles that we need, as well as procurement/supply chain people, and commercial people who have contact with customers.’

The teams – which form and break up as the project completes – are chosen for their relevant talents, but continue to work on their ‘day jobs’ while part of the project. ‘There’s never a problem recruiting people’, says Andrew, ‘since the projects are close to the heart of the business and they can see the potential benefits to their own business’. Our plants in the USA, Turkey and China act as the primary innovation hubs, with plants in other centres contributing as and when needed.

Our longstanding relationships with specialist academic bodies and our network of commercial partners, including technology-led start-ups, helps plug us into the latest thinking. And this R&D model enables us to combine that knowledge with our on-the-ground understanding of customer need – and pain points – alongside material sciences, chemistry and manufacturing capabilities, which we use to develop samples or prototypes.

It’s a model that works well in the different parts of the business. Where we have a strong market share our prototypes can help our customers improve their profitability or add competitive edge to their product. And where technologies don’t exist and there is a customer need, we also develop new technologies – such as developing a carbon commingling capability to meet the needs of the automotive and aerospace industries. It also helps us to plan to enter markets that we don’t currently operate in, but which are of strategic interest to us.

In the past five years alone, we have launched over 200 new products – and in 2015 this included products such as Secura, Signal and Magellen, our conductive thread. By keeping R&D where it rightly belongs – at the heart of the business – we can share resources, ideas and expertise to respond nimbly to client need and keep us at the forefront of technological development.