Some of the most profitable innovations come from working within the shop-worn limits of production, functionality and logistics. In the modern economy, manufacturing without owning fabrication facilities is one such idea. A kiln in Romania supplies IKEA’s iconic coffee mug. Each year, sales reach around 25,000,000 mugs. The design of the mug was rethought continuously. The MBA pundits and gurus from Stern, Said and the Judge business schools, eager to measure how much coffee a person drinks at a café in Brick Lane, will usually attract the services of a market research firm to mine the data. The data will then be used to determine the height and the volume of the perfect mug. IKEA changed the height of its mug; but the design decision was driven by the need to make better use of kiln space in Romania. No guru was needed. No market research. Only a measuring tape and common sense. Antonio Gramsci defines common sense as: clear-sightedness. It is not book-sense nor is it the sophistry of spin doctors.
Sayeed Khan, the founder of Chief Brand Products in Trinidad, started his business at Caroni Savannah Road with a corn milling machine to grind his unique blend of spices to make curry powder. He modified the mill by changing the blades and replacing them with blades of a finer mesh to produce his bespoke culinary mix of turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and dried chilies. The heat generated by his new invention destroyed the inherent nutritional value of the curry, which is a rich source of Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron and manganese. More importantly, the heat ruined the flavouring capacity of the selected spices. Convinced of the uniqueness of his blend, he acquired a pulverizing machine. He packaged the curry in triangular paper packets. Riding his bicycle, he delivered these paper packets of curry to shops. The state then stepped in and the duty free concessions for materials and cellophane packaging machinery from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) allowed him to innovate further. Sayeed Khan did not have a Masters Degree in Design and Manufacturing Engineering from Cambridge. He had what Gramsci described as: clear-sightedness. In 1947, Sayeed was a fireman at the Chaguaramas Base and within eighteen months he was a clerk at Waller Field. The discipline of the American military inspired him. Soon he was innovating in his father’s grocery.
Sayeed was the James Dyson of the West Indies. James wanted to create a bag-less vacuum cleaner and wondered why Electrolux and Hoover had not done it as yet. He was thirty-three. He had three children and an understanding wife. He mortgaged his house. Like Sayeed, James took financial risks. James’ first model was a cyclone made from cardboard and gaffer tape. He had no money to buy a computer. James kept a hand written record of every adjustment to his measurements for each experiment. Most of the time he was failing. A cyclone has a number of variables: size of entry, exit, angle, diameter, length; and the wearisome thing of it all, is that as you change one measurement, you automatically alter all the remaining parameters. James built 5,127 porotypes in his garage. The Sunday Times Rich List 2018 approximates the net worth of Sir James Dyson OM CBE FRS FREng at £9.5 billion. James spent one year (1965–1966) at the Byam Shaw School of Art, and then studied furniture and interior design at the Royal College of Art (1966–1970). He served as the Provost of the Royal College of Art from August 2011 to July 2017. Today, James Dyson employs 3,500 engineers around the world and invests about $10 million a week in new product development.
Ingvar Kamprad was seventeen when he started IKEA with a small gift of cash from his dad for trying hard at school despite dyslexia. By twenty six, Ingvar had a hundred page catalogue. Ingvar did not stop adjusting the dimensions of the coffee mug to match the kiln in Romania. He tweaked the handle to make the mug stack more compactly doubling the quantity that could fit on a pallet in the warehouse and halving the cost of getting them from the kiln in Romania to the shelves in stores. These logistics are important because IKEA operates 355 stores in 29 countries and each store has a warehouse. IKEA opened in India in 2018 and plans to have 25 shops in India by 2025. Every IKEA product is designed to be repurposed, repaired, reused, resold and recycled.
In 2017, the French luxury brand, Balenciaga, launched a blue leather tote bag that carries a US$2,145 price tag at Barneys in N.Y. Balenciaga’s leather blue bag and IKEA’s 18 gallon blue plastic shopping bag are almost entirely alike in design – their size, shape, colour, and multi-handle structure are near-identical; except that the IKEA bag cost 99 cents. IKEA advised its customers that, apart from the price tag, another tip on how to identify an ‘original IKEA FRAKTA bag’ is to look out for a tote that is ‘functional’ – because IKEA’s version ‘can carry hockey gear, bricks and even water’. The IKEA FRAKTA bag is a common sense design, just like a Dyson Cyclone V10 vacuum cleaner, an IKEA coffee mug and Chief Brand’s Madras Curry.