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Four Great Innovations Past and Present: Four Disruptive Players from Four Different Industries and How They did it – Part Three Velcro

Posted by on Aug 8, 2014 in Commentaries | 0 comments

In our July 7th commentary piece, we shared what Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said at the DBS Asian Insights Conference on 4th Jul 2014.   Mr Shanmugaratnam had said that it was unlikely that Singapore would ever return to the formula of relying on cheap labour for its competitiveness.  Instead, Singaporean corporations and businesses must rely on an innovative culture within the organisation to spearhead productivity and innovation to outperform the competition.

We listed in another earlier article “4 Signs Why your Business will need to Innovate in the New Economy” four imperatives for in-house innovation in corporations and businesses:

1) Factors of Production

2) Sophisticated Domestic Demand

3) Supporting Workforce and Industries

4) Domestic Rivalry

In the first and second of our four-part article, we have shared the Mazda MX5 and Rainbow Loom as two of our great examples of in-house innovations past and present.  This part three on “Velcro” follow up with another example of a great innovation from the fashion industry.  Again, at the end of this part, we also highlight the relevant Beanstalk Creative™ Design Thinking principles and techniques that was embedded within the factors of innovation for this particular example.

FOUR GREAT EXAMPLES OF INNOVATIONS

Part 3.  Velcro (1945 – 1955)

Velcro in-house hook and fastener innovation

What is the Innovation:

Velcro is an in-house innovation of a fabric hook and loop fastener system of the Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral.  De Mestral patented his in-house innovation Velcro in 1955, subsequently refining and developing its practical manufacture until its commercial introduction in the late 1950s.  The name “Velcro” is also that of the company that first made and commercially marketed this type of fastener, and continues to do so.

The word Velcro is a combination of the two French words velours (“velvet”), and crochet (“hook”).

Hook-and-loop fasteners consist of two components: typically, two lineal fabric strips (or, alternatively, round “dots” or squares) which are attached (e.g., sewn, adhered, etc.) to the opposing surfaces to be fastened.  The first component features tiny hooks; the second features even smaller and “hairier” loops. When the two components are pressed together, the hooks catch in the loops and the two pieces fasten or bind temporarily during the time that they are pressed together.  When separated, by pulling or peeling the two surfaces apart, the velcro strips make a distinctive “ripping” sound.

The term Velcro is commonly used to mean any type of hook-and-loop fastener, but remains a registered trademark in many countries used by the Velcro company to distinguish their brand of fasteners from their competitors.  The Velcro company headquarters is in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

Factor to Highlight: Supporting Workforce and Industries

The velcro idea came to De Mestral one day after returning from a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps.  He took a close look at the burrs (seeds) of burdock that kept sticking to his clothes and his dog’s fur.  He examined them under a microscope, and noted their hundreds of “hooks” that caught on anything with a loop, such as clothing, animal fur, or hair.  He saw the possibility of binding two materials reversibly in a simple fashion if he could figure out how to duplicate the hooks and loops.

Originally people refused to take de Mestral seriously when he took his idea to Lyon, which was then a centre of weaving.  He did manage to gain the help of one weaver, who made two cotton strips that worked.  However, the cotton wore out quickly, so de Mestral turned to synthetic fibres.  He settled on nylon as being the best synthetic, which had several advantages.  Nylon doesn’t break down, rot, or attract mold, and it could be produced in threads of various thickness.  Nylon had only recently been invented, and through trial and error de Mestral eventually discovered that, when sewn under hot infra-red light, nylon forms hooks that were perfect for the hook side of the fastener.  Though he had figured out how to make the hooks, he had yet to figure out a way to mechanize the process, and to make the looped side.  Next he found that nylon thread, when woven in loops and heat-treated, retains its shape and is resilient; however, the loops had to be cut in just the right spot so that they could be fastened and unfastened many times.  On the verge of giving up, a new idea came to him.  He bought a pair of shears and trimmed the tops off the loops, thus creating hooks that would match up perfectly with the loops in the pile.

Mechanizing the process of weaving the hooks took eight years, and it took another year to create the loom that trimmed the loops after weaving them.  In all, the in-house innovation took ten years.  De Mestral submitted his idea for patent in Switzerland in 1951 and the patent was granted in 1955.

The role of Lyon as a centre of weaving with its supporting workforce and industries played a crucial role in this innovation.

 

Relevant Beanstalk Creative™ Design Thinking principles and techniques

Velcro is viewed by some like Steven Vogel or Werner Nachtigall as a key example of inspiration from nature or the copying of nature’s mechanisms (called bionics or biomimesis).

Abstracting relevant concepts and valuable principles from other fields, industries and in this case, nature, is a key design thinking philosophy and technique.  In the case of Velcro, how de Mestral saw a particular mechanism in nature and imagined its application in the fashion industry is a classic example of how this design thinking technique was applied.

 

Please look out for the Part Four (final) of this article.

If you have any queries about our in-house innovation training and design thinking workshops, please do get in touch with us!

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