Builders, value creators and innovation constraints

Inspired by a trip to Dublin and the people of Web Summit.

I came back from the Web Summit in Dublin (November 2014) both overwhelmed and inspired by the number of individuals and organisations building risky and innovative hardware. It’s incredible given how risk averse people can be. Maybe they’re too aware of how risky it can be to try to create a new product on a shoe-string budget, with just a few people and a lot of blood, sweat and intellectual capital.

Perhaps I saw so many great examples in Dublin because it’s not as risky as it used to be.

Plate divider made out of purple potato by Foodini
Plate divider made out of purple potato by Foodini

From 3D food printers, to custom toy designers, plug & play circuitry, and tablet-controlled cooking scales, these companies are using their intellectual capital to deliver products that couldn’t have existed five or 10 years ago.

Example prints by MCor
Example prints by MCor

Modern industrial design, manufacturing, and outsourcing systems have allowed them to concentrate on using and acquiring the capabilities that make their products unique and useful to customers. They’re not as constrained by geography, physical presence, or manufacturing expertise. That’s not say these things aren’t important, they’re just not getting in the way of producing great products as much as they used to.

Drop by Adaptics

Hardware incubators like PCH International are doing great things to liberate innovators from these constraints, while keeping them grounded in the realities of making physical things. They remind me in some way of how Azure, AWS, and Rackspace have revolutionised software infrastructure and provisioning.They allow you to put more of your value creation time into the software itself. It’s not like you can click and your totally custom mobile phone comes off a production line, but it’s remarkable how it’s enabled ideas to become reality.

Personally, I look forward to engaging with this revolution in value creation and I hope that we can do more to librate more ideas and make them reality. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Lunch & Learn with Dovetailed: 3D printing edible fruit

That’s right, 3D printing edible fruit! Our fascinating Lunch and Learn session with Dovetailed.

August’s Lunch & Learn session was one about which I was especially excited: Dovetailed, a Cambridge-based UX studio and innovation lab, was to come and give a talk and live demo of 3D-printing. Big whoop, some of you more cynical Tesco colleagues may cry: ‘3D printing’s been around for ages – we all know you can 3D-print plastic dolls in your own likeness, and other stuff of questionable usefulness.’

Fair enough, I’d say – except that these guys don’t print plastic stuff: they print fruit…edible fruit!

The concept began from work that Gabriel, Dovetail’s Chief Innovator, had done at Oxford for his dPhil: using a 3D printer to create mimics of biological tissue without using living cells. However, another use for this technology soon emerged. Gabriel says: “The aim of the project was to print something that behaved a bit like a tissue, but personally, when I saw these things, I thought, ‘they look delicious!’”.

Gabriel saw many similarities between the structures he’d created, and fruit. His creations were composed of water droplets separated by very thin membranes – almost like soap bubbles, with a very thin film between them.

An orange, for example, is also made of lots of liquid compartments separated by thin membranes – not quite as thin as his 3D-printed creations, but nevertheless, the structure was similar.

The rest was history. Gabriel decided to apply his experience with 3D-printing liquids, combine it with a different science – molecular gastronomy – and create edible things using a 3D printer. Heston, eat your heart out! Gabriel uses a technique called reverse spherification to create layers of jelly-like structures, one on top of the other, that stick together to form a 3D structure.

You can customise the colour, nutritional content, texture, flavour and shape of these creations, and this technology could be applied much more widely than just within the food industry. You could use it to create personalised make-up; perfumes; easy-to-take supplements or medication for the elderly, or children…and I bet the cocktail bars in Chelsea would lap this up.

‘Sweet sugar pie’
Vaiva, founder of dovetailed.co, also talked to us about how you can change the way people experience food and drink – for example their perceived taste – through technology. She used her stamp system as an example: she simply stamps QR codes onto coffee-shop napkins which, when you scan them with your phone, plays music that makes the coffee you’re drinking seem sweeter – without resorting to unhealthy sugar.

‘Beautiful lasers’
Vaiva also introduced the idea of using laser technology to ‘print’ information on fruit and vegetables, reducing packaging and keeping the customer informed at the same time. For example, not only could you put things like cooking instructions or best before dates on an aubergine, but you could also provide the customer with data about the fruit – its nutritional values, provenance etc.

‘Push it real good’
The final treat Dovetailed had to show us, was their trolley handle add-on. After conducting market research, they concluded that a lot of people felt overwhelmed by choice when shopping in supermarkets. So, they designed a device that clips onto the trolley handle (thus letting the shopper push the trolley as usual), which has a barcode scanner in it. The customer simply scans the product to get information on that product that isn’t usually instantly available, at a glance – and what’s more, the information is personalised.

You scan a card to tailor the results before setting off. So, for example, you could say you’re interested in food mileage, or that you have a nut allergy and wish to be alerted to products containing nuts.

So, when you scan a pack of beef, for example, the more LEDs that light up, the further the meat has travelled to the store. If the product contains nuts, then an unhappy face will appear on the screen. You can even have a running tally of how healthy your trolley is: the scanner can keep track of the amount of salt, fat etc. per portion in your trolley, and can tell you how well you’re doing on average.

Do you think 3D printing your dinner instead of cooking it is the future? Do you think this technology is something that supermarkets could – and should – be exploring? Tweet your thoughts to @TescoLabs

To watch Gabriel and Vaiva present all their inventions, go here.

3D Printing

Every time our research and development teams meet up there is one item guaranteed to draw a crowd, the 3D printer. Read on for a summary of what we think the future might hold for the technology.

Every time our research and development teams meet up, which we do regularly to show off some of the technologies we’re looking at and working on, there is one item that is guaranteed to draw a crowd, the 3D printer. It’s great that we have one to test out and to be able to look at how they might change the way stores work.

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about 3D printing and what it can do. In medicine it can be used to build custom prosthetics and even implants and all with similar technology to the device that’s sat on our desk in the office. There’s even a group in the Netherlands who are planning to “print” a whole house.

If you’re not familiar with how the whole thing works then you’re not alone. There are a few different technologies, but generally layers of material are built up on a platform one at a time from resin that is melted and then cools in place. The platform moves down a bit before each new layer is added and over time, the item that you want to make begins to emerge.

Printer_in_action(1)

The 3D printer in action. For more information you should watch this youtube video too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEKns8T7yUA

So what does this all mean for Tesco then? Well I’m making no promises, but there are a few things I can predict for the future. We already print photos and posters in many of our larger stores, so why not other gifts and personalised items? How about letting kids design their own toys and then actually being able to get them made. What if we had a digital catalogue of spare parts for items that you’d bought? They could be printed on demand and ready for you by the time you’d finished your shopping. You could even take a broken item in to store; we could scan it in 3D, repair it digitally and make you a new one. The potential for 3D technology to revolutionise the way we view stores and what we can get from them is vast.

Printer_on_desk

(My desk)

We’re pretty excited about 3D printing and we’ll be working hard to see how we might be able use it to make things better for customers. We won’t stop there though and as always we’re constantly seeking out the genuinely ‘next big thing.’ Up next I’ve got a trip to Silicon Valley – the heart of the technology industry, where as well as meeting some of the big names I’ll also be getting together with lots of start-ups and trying to find that idea or product that might just change the retail world. Watch this space to find out more about what I get up to.