Scaling Up

Producing a new product using a sheet material (paper, textile, film, nonwoven or composite) involves overcoming a lot of obstacles and rocky patches, especially when moving from a small concept sample to a commercial product. How to achieve success despite the roadblocks? Realize that changes will likely be needed in the product and process – and the sooner these are found, the better.

1. There Must Be a Sense of Urgency

Time is of the essence: you and those around you must be filled with a sense of excitement, timeliness and the importance of your challenge. If you fail, you just might run out of time. Move quickly.

2. How to Scale Up

In the quest to make a good lab scale sample – do not cheat! Producing a beautiful, small sample at slow speed is not the goal. It only gets harder as you scale up. At Micrex, we have seen too many customers take a short cut and get excited about a small sample, assuming it will successfully scale up.

Lab scale is where you look for truths:

  • It is more difficult to run wide than narrow. As an analogy — a long bridge is harder to build than a short one.
  • Run speed – slow is easy, fast is hard.
  • Many processes fail over time, as dust or other contaminates build up, or process components wear.

At lab scale, the severity of these issues become apparent. How do the results change if you double the width, length or speed? This might indicate a limitation or provide an opportunity to prevent a problem.

3. Don’t Assume the Raw Material Will Be Consistent

As in cooking and wine making – the ingredients are important! We often have customers who claim that one batch of roll goods is “exactly the same” as another. This will be documented with a data sheet or C of A. The reality is that no two rolls of material are the same.

The real question is: “How does the process handle normal variation of the raw material?”

4. Keep in Touch with Marketing and the Customer

Most of roll goods product development is tied to specifications. In the broader world of product design, there is often no specification. As a result, the entity running a trial may make assumptions that will not align with the end customer. Be sure to ask yourself: are you using the right specification?

The Portfolio Effect – Odds of Success (Part 3)

Here are a few more thoughts to add to our discussion of the portfolio effect and risk.

I grew up admiring the concept of the “Lone Wolf” inventor. The Wright Brothers, Edison, Tesla, Bell. Parts of what we all have heard are myth, and some is reality. Several of these “individual inventors” created what looked a lot like a corporate entity at their time. However, the myth of the Lone Wolf lives on – e.g. consider Steve Jobs and the iPhone, or Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

It is dangerous to subscribe to this myth. At Micrex, 98% of our customers are large corporations. Only they have the ability and resources to launch a new product into a competitive global marketplace. They understand that the best way to develop new products is by having a broad portfolio of initiatives at various stages of maturity. This approach takes most of the luck and some of the risk out of product development.

The portfolio approach for product development shares the theoretical underpinnings with the same concept in finance. In the 1970’s, “Modern Portfolio Theory” conclusively demonstrated that maximizing return while systematically controlling risk required that one work with a diversified portfolio of investments.

At Micrex we have a soft spot for drunks, sailors and entrepreneurs. Despite our better senses — we occasionally get to work with an entrepreneur in a startup. In almost all cases, they run out of time or money (which in many ways is the same thing) before their product is ready for market.

How do we handle this same risk at Micrex? Through our customers. At any one time, Micrex is working on 300 – 400 projects. Many will not succeed, but some will. It is a matter of averages.

Fail Fast: It Should Be Part Of Your Strategy

At Micrex, we are big believers in the concept of “Fail Fast”. We have always talked about it with our customers – and what we have learned is that there are different interpretations of what “fail fast” means.


From an engineering perspective, fail fast is about system safety and optimization. A system that is designed to fail fast is one that will go into a failure state, rather than continue to operate in a possibly failed state. This allows back-up or redundant systems to immediately be activated.

The key is to minimize the delay between a likely failure and a truly flagging failure, so that an alternative solution can be implemented.

Extrapolating this to product development leads to two more alternatives:

  • Fail but learn: failure produces learnings, which inform next steps
  • Fail often: design the system to make it easy to try the next thing.

Celebrating Failure Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense

Why celebrate failure – particularly when we know that the corporate world rewards success?
The product development professional must strive to foster an environment where failure can occur without negative consequence. The good news: this is not as hard as it sounds.

The Solution: Test Early Or Inexpensively

It means looking for ways to test either early or inexpensively. Test components before testing the entire system. If something seems to work, then test variations that fail – it will give you confidence in the solution’s robustness.

Counterpoint: I was chatting with a long-time customer about changes at his company because of a recent merger.

Me: “What’s new at your company?”

Customer: “They’re training us to be more entrepreneurial”.

Me: “How’s it going?”

Customer: “Great – until something does not work out”.


I am going to argue that as a group, product development professionals have a bias toward excessive secrecy.

By nature, PD requires some degree of secrecy. It is obviously a poor idea to disclose all the details of your company’s strategy.
Top Secret
Inventors by instinct keep their best ideas under wraps. After all, you are only as good as your last idea. I have had customers with cubicles within yards of one another working on projects with us, but they never share the information with their co-workers. There are also the dark cautionary tales about people who disclosed confidential information through carelessness or negligence.

Simply put — in most organizations you can get in trouble for sharing too much.

Here’s the dilemma: by definition, product development relies on an exchange of ideas. New products do not occur in a vacuum.

Of course, as practitioners we will never be criticized for excessive secrecy, but our organizations will pay the price over time through a failure to innovate.

I have seen very few ideas lost or stolen, but thousands that have failed because of poor execution.

This brings me to another of my favorite aphorisms: “Every time I think I see conspiracy, in the end all I find is ignorance or sloth.”

Just One More Feature – Please!

Very often, when we are in the final stages of wrapping up a new product, we become so close to the task that we miss the big picture. The temptation to add one more feature or improvement is almost irresistible.

This can also have huge negative consequences.


During World War II my father served in the Quartermasters Corps of the U. S. Army. His stories of the war tended to center around cocktail parties in Washington, but a few cautionary tales survived the rigor of wartime in the capital.

One was about the pitons used by the mountain troops. Apparently the piton manufacturer and the Army were quite proud of the work done behind enemy lines by troops using these pitons. They agreed to stamp “US” on each piton.

Tragically, the pitons began failing in the field. Eventually they discovered that the stamping compromised the piton.

Repeat after me – “Perfection is the enemy of good.”


Companies today need to become much better at innovation. While most organizations claim to foster new products, their actual track record is poor. Managers are using old tools and methods to shape the future.

Except for the rare companies, such as Google or P&G that are richly endowed with a culture of innovation, most managers are left to fumble or improvise a process for developing new products. Regrettably — these improvisations are likely to fail.

Yet it is the nimble smaller firm, when combined with an appropriate innovation strategy, that has the greatest chance for success.

My goal is to help those who are struggling with PD to find a successful path through the art and science of innovation.