It is the development of the idea that counts
The First and Second World Wars were very different from those conflicts that erupted before, and changed the rules of engagement for all involved. This was driven by some very clever developments in both transport, munitions and equipment. This new type of warfare drove the massive changes in collaboration by companies who were previously unrelated, or even competitors.
In World War 1 car manufacturers moved over to munitions, military vehicles and also started developing aircraft, and aircraft engines. Equipment such as gas masks were developed almost as soon as gas bombs were, the hazard created the requirement and the delivery needs.
An example of this is parachutes*, they were invented by Leonardo Da Vinci on his drawing board (as was the helicopter), and the first parachute built for use in 1783 was by Louis Sebastien Lenormand out of two umbrellas. However it wasn’t until 1912 that Jefferson Barracks successfully jumped from a Benoist Pusher BiPlane in Missouri from 1500 feet (457 m) in a full parachute more closely resembling the modern design. The slow development (some 129 years!) and modification of the parachute resulted in a product considered too bulky for use by pilots, and only made available for airships. The NEED for a working parachute which could be packed into a small back pack when air battles became more prevalent, meant the development of fine silk material specifically for this purpose and by WW2 of course it was widely used by anyone airborne!
Also in the Second World War, the American Government put out for tender the design of a vehicle capable of working in difficult terrain, easy to repair on site and light for lifting by air and delivering to the field of battle. The tender went out to all current motor and tractor manufacturers (135 in all), and three came back with designs, Bantam was the first, with the design for the Bantam Jeep**by freelance designer Karl Probost, this was quickly followed by Ford with the Ford GPW and Willys-Overland with Willys MB. All three companies were able to produce these vehicles in wartime, meaning that they were the only manufacturers during the war making vehicles, all other motor production being stopped and the factories turned over to munitions and aircraft production.
These wartime examples demonstrate how, when faced with a well defined need, and with a time limit with which to deliver, the companies that are ready and able to change their production to fulfil these needs, can be successful and use adversity to drive development and innovation. Invention alone is not enough, the parachute as an idea took a long time to become the useful lifesaver it later became.
After the conflicts, business was driven by different parameters. it needed to get debts paid and industry back up and running, the lessons on processing and manufacture learnt during the war were not lost and although we can argue if invention slowed down or not, development of existing and new products certainly didn’t. After all there was the Cold War and the Space race which literally drove the digital age!
Now we are faced with another adversary with COVID-19, it gives us well defined needs and a time parameter in which to deliver which is as soon as possible. What is interesting to me now, is the surprising ways in which some companies both large and small are responding to the lockdown from the virus. What is more interesting still, is how our view of the companies and how they handle themselves now will shape their success in the future.
The initial response to Lockdown for everyone, was what should we do, and what can we do? What should we do to comply with the rules, protect our staff and protect our business. What can we do to help our staff, and our customers? What can we do for the community and what can we do to maintain our business?
In Manufacturing and Aviation, the responses have been most notably to change production from motor and engine parts, to ventilators, and face protectors. Small and micro businesses are producing the face protectors using 3d printers in their garages, others are changing from making clothes and upholstery to PPE equipment.
Like the USA government above, the UK government and the NHS put out to tender the need for ventilators and CPAP equipment, and in response new Ventilators (Penlon Prima ESO2)*** is being produced with contributions to its development from Airbus, Ford, Siemens and multiple Formula One teams including Mclaren. The collaboration of these companies with Penlon is said to have accelerated development by months, meaning the production of these is increased from 60 a week to 1500 a week.
As we all know, digital networking and webinar platforms are being developed constantly, the requirement for Zoom, ( from an estimated 10 million to 300 million users) being a prime example of having the right product to meet the need at the right time.
VR(Virtual Reality) developers have been working on headsets for doctors within the NHS for months, looking to enhance their abilities by using technology for real time Xrays and MRI information when with the patient, now with the virus reducing the amount of people allowed in the wards at any time, the VR headsets currently being tested and developed allow one Doctor to be with the patient, and a team watching remotely and able to discuss the patient and their symptoms in real time.
This is all good stuff, but what of the other side of technological developments? With the rise of the motor car, fell the use of the horse and carriage. With movie streaming platforms, video stores went out of business very quickly. Now that we are not allowed to go into a crowded office to work, companies are finding that maybe they don’t need those large expensive offices to rent, and maybe not all of their staff. This week it was announced that Rolls Royce**** are reducing their workforce in their aerospace division, sadly this could have a lot to do with all the planes parked in the airfields worldwide due to the lockdown.
Well I am optimistic here too, as Rolls Royce are one of many firms developing electric airplanes, demonstrating that although they cutting back in one area, they are still looking to develop in a new exciting one. The large office blocks are often in prime locations to be developed in urban housing, and councils are keen to give planning permission in change of use, rather than in building on our green fields! As for Blockbuster, the most notable of the video rental stores, one lone store still remains in Oregon USA, maybe they will find a new niche invention, develop it at the right time, and we shall see them in our high streets once again when we need it!
*Parachute — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parachute
***Penlon Production — https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52309294
****Rolls Royce — https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52723107