Let’s face it again: Innovation is hard. Great innovation is harder. We are often at odds with multiple groups in the organization on change, on timelines and on costs. Most times the original idea has to adapt to the barriers you encounter, but it is all worth it with a successful innovation project.

One of the product innovation projects from my early experience was an attic ventilator built by a great company in Ohio. Along with windows and window components, we also had a line of gable end louvers. These were active products used to ventilate attics before through-the-roof and ridge vents used today were common.

The product line had been unchanged for many, years and two challenges developed. One was the lumber was changing from old-growth fir and redwood to new-growth pine. Around the same time, EPA regulated out the treatment systems that were then in use. These actions and changes from suppliers gave us early decay in the field.

The second challenge was a series of changes to home construction that caused excess moisture to accumulate in the ceilings. The newer home construction used much more insulation in the ceiling and lowered the temperature of the attic. This saved lots of heating energy, but the unintended consequence was attics had to change, too. The older louvered designs could allow blown snow to pass through the screening and in a higher-heat attic, where it would evaporate quickly. In the colder attic, the snow accumulated, melted slowly into water and seeped into ceilings.

We quickly realized we had to stop the snow and rain at the wall and not let it penetrate the attic space. The innovation challenge was complex since we were solving multiple problems at once. We needed to retain the ventilation area to vent the attic, while at the same time dramatically reducing snow and rain penetration. We also had to come up with a polymer to replace the wood components that would hold up to the high heat, UV and the durability needed by builders. Other challenges were the overall sizing had to stay the same, and we had to cost-match the existing product.

Our innovation team started with a core brainstorming session that created multiple ideas, and we worked through many prototypes. We found a supplier who used vacuforming to make automotive hood scoops using a multilayer polymer sheet material. This made it very heat-resistant and weatherable. We also decided on a hollow self-drained design that used an interior baffle system.

We created more prototypes, loaded them up on a truck and took them to ATI in York, Pa. At that time, ATI was the only lab in the East that had dynamic water testing using a mounted airplane engine and blade. We failed… Badly.  Back to the drawing board ( at that time it was literally a drawing board).

We rethought our assumptions, and agreed we would need a way to shut off the airflow at high speeds to attain our goal. One of the team suggested a folding flap that could react to pressure. After many attempts, a living hinge and an aerodynamic foil extruded in one piece was prototyped. It worked well, but tighter control of the bending force was needed, so it was retooled again.

We also had to create an assembly method that quickly put all the components together. We had heard about plastic welding that automotive was using for dashboards. A vendor for sonic welding became a partner on our team and created a new way to assemble the entire product with screen with one welding step.

Finally, we had a product!  Many details of production in volume had to be resolved and multiple vendors were now tooling up. Lots of late nights, four-hour truck trips to vendors by the team and more testing got us to the point of reality.

Next was patent applications, marketing and literature, customer visits and production-line builds. Our patent had to go through multiple rounds, but as you can see below it was granted to our entire team.

This project created a product that accomplished all its goals and was widely accepted and used by many customers. Even today over 100 other patents have referenced this idea for clarity. This quick recap should give you some insight into the realities of Innovation..

Keep innovating!

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