Asked what would constitute their ideal client, John Nottingham, co-president of Nottingham Spirk, says it is a company leader who is "not afraid to shake things up."
That’s a good thing because this innovation firm based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, likes nothing more than to take a familiar product and transform it. In 1998, for example, the electric toothbrush was a $50 to $100 product and sold in modest quantities. Nottingham, John Spirk and two other partners decided if they could produce an electric toothbrush for $5, they would change the market. They were right. In its first year, 10 million Spinbrush units were sold. Three years later, Procter & Gamble (IW 500/11) was selling 30 million units.
A walk past the display cases in the hallway circling Nottingham Spirk’s headquarters, originally a church built in 1930, shows a host of other innovative products, including the Swiffer SweeperVac, Scotts Snap fertilizer spreader and the Twist & Pour paint container developed for Sherwin Williams’ (IW 500/115) Dutch Boy brand.
Under the expansive dome of the main room in the complex sits a HealthSpot Station, a modular examination room that can be stationed in drugstores and provides, the firm says, "the confidence of a doctor’s office with the convenience of walk-in neighborhood service." The station is connected via the Internet to a physician who is seen on an integrated screen. The patient can access several medical instruments that are used under the doctor’s direction, such as an otoscope. The physician can diagnose the problem from test results or schedule the patient for further examination.
Why do a bevy of Fortune 500 firms use Nottingham Spirk’s services? Nottingham says large companies typically are good at incremental improvements but have difficulty with game-changing innovations.
To produce those breakthroughs, Nottingham Spirk starts with client discussions and then does extensive consumer research. In its headquarters, the company has rooms for focus groups that can provide real-time feeds to customers. Once it begins working on prototype ideas, it draws on the talents of industrial designers, engineers and skilled machinists with access to a full machine shop.
While imagination is essential to the product development process, Nottingham says the company is grounded in ensuring that it develops products that fit the client’s business strategy, meet a targeted price point and can be successfully manufactured and packaged.
Nottingham Spirk uses a process it calls vertical innovation to speed the development process. The collaborative, overlapping approach produces results typically in nine to 12 months, versus what Nottingham says is often 18 to 24 months in many companies.
Bill Nottingham, an industrial designer by training like his father, says a hallmark of the profession is an "anything is possible mentality." That openness to new ideas is part of the culture of a company ready for the next game changer.
For more on manufacturering innovation, see "Leading Innovation"