Research and development is at the beating heart of the mobility industry. The most innovative equipment suppliers pour significant resources into R&D to ensure the next generation of equipment is even better and more advanced than the last. In this special report, suppliers discuss their approach to R&D and introduce some of the cutting-edge developments taking the market by storm.
Research and development (R&D) is expensive. In such a tough market where margins can often be fine, many manufacturers struggle to find the resources to invest in creating the cutting-edge designs that advance the market. Yet it is the suppliers who are prepared to take the financial hit that are thanked most by retailers. Manufacturers who invest in R&D are often responsible for helping dealers to offer the best-possible solutions to customers and push, what is sometimes considered a conservative sector, forward.
R&D has to therefore be an essential part of every leading supplier’s business model and retailers benefit from the investment as much as end-users do. One company that claims to place R&D at the core of its business is Stiltz Homelifts. Gino Farruggio, trade sales director, says the company invests 10% of all company profits into R&D as part of its strategy to produce “the most advanced domestic lifts in the world”.
“Our approach is to keep on looking at ways of designing and manufacturing a homelift product which is easy to use, improves a person’s lifestyle and is something everyone is proud to own. Sales of our Stiltz Homelifts have increased substantially over the last three years as awareness has grown about our products and it is up to us to continue bringing new innovations to the marketplace.”
Similarly, Johnathan Hearth, managing director of Electric Mobility, says that R&D is “vital” to the business and allows it to produce the more advanced products that its dealer customers require. He explains that the supplier’s new product development (NPD) activities have “many drivers”, with the needs and aspirations of consumers at its core.
He says: “Feedback for improvement and new design is encouraged and harvested at all levels of the business; it’s a cultural thing! There is no such thing as a bad idea; it’s just that an idea to solve a real issue is so valuable and often forgotten in favour of some gimmick that has no real impact.
“Our focus is utterly customer-orientated, never forgetting of course the grounding effect of the consumer’s budget and the equally important ability to meet quality and safety benchmarks whilst controlling manufacturing costs. Our current product development programme has led to substantial increases in sales thanks to real market research, highly targeted specifications, and more than a bit of engineering and creative flair.”
Unsurprisingly, one of the market’s largest suppliers, Invacare, weighs in to state R&D is “essential” to its business model. Invacare’s mobility marketing manager, Chris Fowler, advises: “It is vital, as a company, you stay on top of your customers’ needs and desires. Not only in the obvious way with products but also with services and customer care. R&D is vital to continue to innovate.
Most suppliers will understandably shout about their commitment to R&D, but how have they translated it into the flesh? What do they have to show for their investment and what recent R&D outcomes are they most proud of?
For Fowler, combining research with development has resulted in one of its most exciting offerings. He describes the LiNX control system as a “real high point” for the company, explaining: “Often customer requirements can be very simple, for example, ‘I want an inch wider seat’. But when customer feedback is something like, ‘I want to feel more confident driving my power wheelchair’, it is often harder to translate that into a development.”
With this in mind, Invacare embarked on a project to incorporate wireless Bluetooth programming into the LiNX technology and MyLiNX app, which are designed to give users more control over their powerchairs.
Programming a powerchair via Bluetooth ensures that each customer has the correct program for their ability and requirements. The MyLiNX app also offers Bluetooth diagnostic information on the powerchair’s performance. Combined, these help build the customer’s confidence when driving the powerchair, which makes the LiNX technology one of Invacare’s most beneficial recent R&D innovations, Fowler believes.
Meanwhile, Farruggio has reason to be proud of Stiltz’s innovations given the fact that it is still a relatively young company but has “taken huge strides forward” since launching the Duo Homelift in 2010. Over the last six years the company has introduced a clear body lift and its larger Stiltz Trio Homelift, which is more suitable for wheelchair users. It has also released a lift capable of thru-car configuration, whereby the user can enter one side of the lift on ground level and leave from the other side once it has reached the upper floor.
Farruggio comments in regards to the thru-car configuration lift: “This particular innovation is totally unique to Stiltz and no other domestic lift on the market today can offer this solution so I’m very proud of that fact. But I have to say the launch of our stylish new upgraded Stiltz Duo+ Homelift and Stiltz Trio+ Homelift, which we launched during our first-ever product launch to the trade last summer, has to be the company’s proudest moment.”
With a comparatively long history in mobility innovation, Electric Mobility’s R&D strategy has produced a number of fruits. One of the brightest outcomes of its processes has been the Vecta Sport Compact Road Scooter, which Hearth brands as “[its] most exciting product for many years”.
Starting with user feedback, Hearth says the company was determined to create a product that was aesthetic and provided all the performance of larger scooters in a compact package. Its features were designed to solve genuine customer problems rather than to be gimmicks. For example, fitting run-flat tyres removes the worry of punctures, without the harsh ride of solid tyres. The mobility scooter also has a limited slip transmission meaning users do not get stuck on difficult ground.
Evolving strategy for the future
By their very nature, R&D strategies demand constant revisiting, adjusting and progression. But developments must come in leaps and bounds rather than a ‘turn-key’ approach, according to Hearth. He insists Electric Mobility’s strategy will look at new applications of existing technologies from other fields in the future. He says: “‘Turn-key’ developments are so prolific in the industry and do nothing for the benchmark. Tweaking and re-badging is just not the way to be a market leader.”
Interestingly, Invacare’s R&D strategy will evolve in a slightly different way to some of its rival firms. Fowler points out that often, for established companies with established products it can be easy for them to place too much focus on the ‘development’ part of R&D. He says: “Research is essential, and when this research is carried out effectively you will often surprise yourself. Good, in-depth research will help you separate facts from opinions.”
Stiltz’s approach to advancing its strategy for bringing new products to market comes in the form of investment in staff. Farruggio explains: “We recently employed six new people into our R&D team at our headquarters in the West Midlands and they are committed and very experienced individuals who are already working on the next phase of Stiltz products for the future. It is an exciting time to be involved in the access and mobility industry as technology is advancing at such a rapid rate which can only mean the consumer benefits from the best possible product solution.”
Choosing a partner
The benefits for the consumer of suppliers investing heavily in R&D are pretty self-explanatory. But what is in it for dealers and how can working with suppliers with advanced R&D strategies impact on their businesses?
One reason it is important for dealers to work with suppliers who are strong on R&D, Fowler says, is that the processes cannot be carried out in isolation. It naturally creates a two-way dialogue to benefit all parties, he feels.
The idea of feedback and dialogue is important among most suppliers who tend to recognise R&D must be a two-way relationship with dealers describing what works well with customers and what does not. This kind of open approach helps keep dealers loyal, Farruggio believes. He says: “Dealers will only stay committed to suppliers who continually innovate and create great new cutting-edge products. Technology is changing all the time and, as manufacturers, we need to lead in the field to keep strong partnerships with our dealers.”
In contrast, Hearth says it is not important that dealers work with those manufacturers most committed to R&D. But he is quick to add that it is vital to work with suppliers that produce “great products”. He says: “R&D is just how the suppliers create those products. What is important is great products, produced consistently at a consistent quality level and even more important is that post-sales operations continue to support the business and its clients effectively. Mobility suppliers and dealers have the same goals.”
Retailers and their manufacturing partners may sometimes have the same goals but it still falls to suppliers to be proactive in how they research, source and develop new products and technologies. While the industry is often criticised for being slow to advance compared to some other sectors, the R&D activities of some of the top suppliers would suggest otherwise. The amounts of money being poured into processes are good news for the dealer and ultimately the end-user.
Each supplier has its own strategy for R&D but ultimately, dealers are usually concerned with one thing: how those processes can arm them for the retail game. A greater focus on R&D means more suitable and potentially successful products for dealers to offer end-users, presenting a rare win-win opportunity. As the next generation of equipment enters the market, dealers will do well to keep their finger on the pulse and look to suppliers committed to innovation.