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The Innovation Cycle: Where Are We?

(December 2009) posted on Tue Nov 24, 2009

Invention extension? Functional substitution? Find out what these concepts mean and how they apply to the screen-printing industry.

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By Mark A. Coudray

Compare that failure to the enormous success of the Apple iPod and iPhone. Both of these have millions of users and they built their market share very quickly. The market was ripe and the timing was spot on. Apple didn’t have to convince people this was the next big thing. It was almost self-explanatory.

The invention-extension phase can go on for decades if not hundreds of years. Look at our own industry. The invention was moveable type, created around 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg. It was a totally disruptive technology to society and lead to the single largest expansion of culture and knowledge in our civilization. We could argue that everything (including digital in the broadest sense today) is an invention extension of this innovation.

Functional substitution
This is where the lifecycle gets interesting. It’s the phase at which a better alternative, that’s not a direct extension of the original invention, begins to supplant the latest invention extension. It’s the better or more efficient way of doing things—or the choice that offers less resistance or is easier to use than what it replaces.

A great example is the invention of the first working incandescent light bulb. Edison invented it in October of 1879 and demonstrated sustained lighting for 40 hours. The invention extension is the socket to hold the bulb and any of the numerous improvements in filament composition. These remained largely unchanged until just recently, when the overall environmental impact of electricity generation and the efficiency of energy use became more important issues.

An example of functional substitution is the CFL or compact fluorescent lamp, which uses far less energy and is far more reliable (25 times longer life than incandescents). The economics and the impact on our environment are leading to the substitution of this type of lighting to replace incandescent filament bulbs entirely. In fact, energy ministers in the European Union have agreed to a ban on incandescents starting in 2010. 

The existing idea or technology enters the declining phase of its life once it moves into the functional-substitution phase. More importantly, as more and more of the population embraces the newer alternatives, the price drops, the adoption rate increases, and the new alternative enters its own aggressive invention-extension phase.


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