Building Products Magazine On the Table - Innovation Review
Charles Johnston is Knauf Drywall Regional Specification Director (North)
1. Do you feel that 2010 has seen product innovation regressing, or has the recession forced companies to innovate in particular ways to stay successful?
Difficult economic conditions, especially in the building sector, have led many companies to put research and development on the back burner in a desperate bid to cut costs. At Knauf Drywall, however, some 18 months prior to the recession we decided to expand our business beyond our core range of plasters and plasterboard systems, and were able to launch several innovative products which have helped us through the challenges of the past two years. This approach has also encouraged a culture of innovation which continues to produce fresh product ideas, better ways of doing things in our factories and on building sites, and improvements in the way we serve our customers.
2. Are specifiers adopting the more ‘innovative’ solutions when another, cheaper solution is available; is the reduced pressure to complete jobs on time helping them to think more laterally about products, and take a longer-term view?
With new construction projects in short supply, specifiers tend to have more time to consider the various solutions on offer. Ironically, this increases commercial pressure as there is added emphasis on value for money and the environmental performance benefits that each solution provides. At the same time, some risk-averse specifiers seem to show less inclination to try innovative solutions, preferring the ‘comfort’ of products they have used previously.
3. Is the word ‘innovation’ still being overused, so much so that specifiers perhaps don’t always know the difference between genuine innovation and ‘being fit for purpose’? Are they able to in your experience, and do you strive not to abuse the term?
The difference is always problematic: in many instances, specifiers go out of their way to find an innovative alternative when, in fact, all they need is a fit-for-purpose solution – sometimes leading to over-specified and expensive choices. There is nothing wrong with using ‘innovation’ or ‘new’ to promote products or ideas that genuinely fit the description: the danger lies in the need to convince cynics that ‘new’ does not mean unproven.
4. Do you believe that new products currently on offer in the market for structures have reached their limit in terms of innovation in improving the thermal status of buildings?
Every building solution in use today reflects thousands of years’ experience on the evolutionary curve of construction technology. New products and more efficient ways of making and using established products and systems have steepened the curve over the past 60 years, and the pace of innovation is likely to accelerate further to meet the growing needs of both developed and developing nations – and to transform the built environment to one which is essentially green. Experience shows there is no limit to innovation, so we are confident that today’s products have scope for future improvement against all performance criteria, although in some cases improvements may be in smaller steps.
5. Have improvements and changes to products actually thrown up related problems or obstacles that previously did not exist?
Problems are inevitable with any product improvement or change, and problem-solving has become an integral part of the research and development process. The aim is to iron out all snags before a product is released: fortunately this is more realistic in the building sector than, for example, the motor industry where product recalls are not infrequent. The biggest obstacle in change is often people’s mindset. New products are always viewed with added suspicion and problems that are perceived in new products may in fact have existed unnoticed in earlier products. Driving change is never easy!
6. Are you aware of any particular collaborations between suppliers where product innovation that wasn’t possible is now being delivered?
In Knauf Drywall’s case, we are working more closely with sister companies to achieve greater progress in innovation. For example, our cementitious Aquapanel Exterior lining board is an ideal substrate for render products from Knauf Marmorit. We also work with leading underfloor heating companies to provide a high efficiency packaged solution with Knauf Brio Dry Floor Screed. Collaborations like these make commercial sense for the companies involved and ensure that the end user gets the best possible solution.
7. If housebuilding becomes increasingly ‘localised’ as is envisaged by the Government, how do you see this affecting the specification of more innovative solutions?
Legislation affecting the building industry is national, and this is the driving force for product innovation. Similarly, product information is also national – even global. So the initial take-up of innovation is likely to be more in the hands of the bigger nationwide companies. Smaller ‘local’ companies tend to follow, rather than lead, in the use of innovative solutions. However, there are already some regional differences in system usage in the UK: for example, taping and jointing tends to be the more prevalent finishing technique in dry lining installations in the South, while plaster skim coats are more popular in the North.
8. Innovation can often mean an alternative route to legislation compliance; do you see more of this happening in the future?
We are working in an environment of tightening legislation and stricter requirements for compliance. So, for manufacturers of building materials, there is a growing need to demonstrate that their products and systems provide compliant solutions. Additionally, there is the opportunity to innovate with improvements to existing systems and with brand new ideas. Business success is all about doing things better, as many manufacturers are well aware; so it’s fair to say that more legislation will lead to more innovation.
9. Is R&D going to continue to be a driving force or will suppliers be moving to more ‘hands-on’ or traditional development approaches, which may be innovative in their own ways?
R&D will undoubtedly play a key role in the future of our business, and we have already invested in a larger development team and innovation programme. But it will not just be people working in laboratories – we also want our people out on sites and in our factories to solve problems and identify opportunities for delivering more efficient solutions. Development will also be affected by legislation: for example, restrictions on sending plasterboard waste to landfill led to the innovation of gypsum waste recycling and the use of recycled material in new products. Economic factors will also boost innovation: shrinkage in the construction industry as a result of recession has forced many workers to find jobs in other sectors, so when the industry picks up again it will face a severe shortage of skilled labour – and this drives development of ‘skill-less’ products.
10. Please name the most innovative product you have recently come across, and why it deserves the title.
Knauf Brio Dry Floor Screed – it’s a precision engineered lightweight gypsum fibreboard that is quick and easy to lay. It is designed for new and refurbishment flooring installations and is particularly appropriate for use with underfloor heating. Because Knauf Brio is virtually thermally transparent, it enhances the efficiency of UFH, reducing both energy costs and CO2 emissions.
Knauf Drywall manufactures a full range of plasters, plasterboards, insulating laminates, dry flooring, drywall accessories and metal sections for domestic, commercial and Public Sector applications. Knauf Drywall pioneered carbon neutral plasterboard in the UK with Knauf Futurepanel. Knauf also actively promotes recycling from building sites and has a zero waste policy in its energy efficient factories at Sittingbourne in Kent and Immingham on Humberside.
For further information ring the Knauf Drywall Literature Line 08700 613 700
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