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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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10.8 Need to improve product or process

Even though an invention will have been thoroughly tested before launch it's not possible for a company to test its performance in every situation in which it will be used. Real users are likely to discover how the product might not perform well or how it doesn't meet their needs. Once a company learns about these deficiencies it can address them through redesign. There are a number of incentives to do this: improve the product's performance in order to increase its appeal to larger numbers of buyers; further reduce materials and manufacturing costs to the company to increase profit; reduce the purchase price to promote sales.

This invention driver accounts for much incremental invention. You've already seen an example of this process in the development of the telephone – new components, new features, and spin-off inventions are all the result of attempts to improve existing technology.

An extreme example of this process was Sinclair Research, mentioned earlier. In the early 1970s it launched a range of electronic calculators that were designed to be small and light enough to fit in the pocket. For example the Cambridge calculator was sold both as a kit and fully built. Although at £29.95 it was expensive when first introduced, a year later the price had fallen to below £15. The Cambridge calculator was small, even by modern standards, weighing only 100 grams. However it suffered from a design flaw; after a certain amount of use the calculator was impossible to turn off due to oxidation of cheap components used in the switch contacts. Some critics say that Sinclair Research's innovative products were often launched prematurely and early buyers used as developmental testers. Feedback from these buyers was then used to make improvements to the products. While this undoubtedly led to improved products, arguably it damaged the company's reputation as a supplier of reliable products and it was eventually edged out of the market by companies with more conventional business strategies.

I've already mentioned another, more conventional, example of incremental improvement. This was when Marcel Bich invented an improved manufacturing and assembly process to enable the BIC ballpoint pen to be manufactured on a large scale and for a significantly lower unit cost.