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Sustainability Driven Innovation

Process Innovation


Process Innovation


Process innovations are arguably one of the most evolved forms of innovation, in that they have roots in literally hundreds of years of product and service development. From the cotton gin to the assembly line, process innovation is a classic form of innovation, as well as one which typically allows the organization intellectual property protection, and therefore, some level of defensible differentiation over time.

From The Ten Types of Innovation:

Process innovations involve the activities and operations that produce an enterprise's primary offerings. Innovating here requires a dramatic change from “business as usual” that enables the company to use unique capabilities, function efficiently, adapt quickly, and build market-leading margins. Process innovations often form the core competency of an enterprise, and may include patented or proprietary approaches that yield advantage for years or even decades. Ideally, they are the “special sauce” you use that competitors simply can't replicate.

“Lean production,” whereby managers reduce waste and cost throughout a system, is one famous example of a Process innovation. Other examples include process standardization, which uses common procedures to reduce cost and complexity, and predictive analytics, which model past performance data to predict future outcomes–helping companies to design, price, and guarantee their offerings accordingly.

Process Innovation in the Sustainability Space

MBA Polymers Revolutionary Recycling Separation Process

The world of recycling and waste minimization is one which feels to continuously be on the edge of a revolutionary development but is many times fraught with frustration. Regardless of the constraints and struggles on the part of the recycler, all paths lead to the classic problem on the demand side of recycled plastics: There are relatively few applications for black, low quality, downcycled plastics, which are typically problematic in molding and processing. These are the types of plastics that are downcycled into parts like automotive wheel well liners and fairings (if you open the hood of your car and see a black, "swirly" finished plastic, this is low grade, downcycled plastic.) Like all supply and demand balances, if all plastics are recycled into black, low-quality plastics of limited marketable use, the price per ton is going to be suppressed.

Needless to say, if plastics can not only be recycled and repelletized by type, color, and other properties, it would represent a revolution in recycling and plastics. This is what MBA Polymers can do, and has roughly 60 patents to cover the process by which it does so.

From an excellent Pop Sci article on Mike Biddle:

"But by the time he saw Puckett's film, Biddle had quietly achieved what most thought impossible: He had discovered how to separate certain mixed plastics completely. This was no mere down-cycling. Biddle could take the plastic from, say, a laptop, reduce it to its purest form, and sell it back to a computer company to make another laptop. What's more, at his facility in Richmond, California, Biddle could produce recycled plastic with as little as 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin. In a world where people use 240,000 plastic bags every 10 seconds, where passengers on U.S. airlines consume one million plastic cups every six hours, where consumers in total discard more than 100 million tons of plastic annually, closing the loop on production and recycling could reduce global dependence on oil, the source material for virgin plastic. It could conceivably influence not only the price of oil, but global flows of trade as well. And it could dramatically reduce the wholesale smothering of communities across Asia and Africa with hazardous e-waste. If Biddle could convince people to give him waste rather than dump it around the globe, he could conceivably change the world."

Please watch the following 10:51 video. If the video is not displaying on the page, please view the video on the external site. The transcript is also available on the external site.

Video: We can recycle plastic (10:51)

Credit: Mike Biddle. "We can recycle plastic." TED.
Click here for a transcript of the Unit Hydrograph and Proportionality video.


I had the pleasure of judging an entrepreneurship competition at Penn State when Vortic, as a business venture, was but a glimmer in the eye of a team of upperclassmen, but even then, their focus, determination, and innovation was quite evident.

Vortic's core business is taking a uniquely stylish (and patent pending) approach to watchmaking, by upcycling century-old pocketwatch movements into beautiful, Corning Gorilla Glass-faced watches. Because of the variation of these old pocketwatches, they created a proprietary case design and fit process for each individual movement, which is then 3D printed and machined individually.

Their decidedly high-end and high-tech approach to upcycling resulted in their Kickstarter reaching its $10,000 goal within 12 hours, eventually landing at $41,035. Since then, the popularity of their watches means that you now have only the opportunity to purchase a backorder slot for your own Vortic... starting at $1,395.

Please watch the following 8:35 video:

Video: How Watches Are Made: Vortic Watch Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado) (8:35)

Credit: Worn & Wound. "How Watches Are Made: Vortic Watch Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado)." YouTube. August 8, 2018.
Click here for a transcript of the How Watches Are Made: Vortic Watch Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado) video.

TYLER WOLFE, CO-FOUNDER: Most of what I do here was definitely not training that I got in a classroom. For the most part, everything that I know that I do I learned hands-on. Here we're going all the way from computer model to finished product under one roof. I do something new every single day. Every single watch is different.

R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: We wanted to start Vortic because we wanted to make a truly American-made watch. We figured we could make the cases and crowns and everything else but we needed an American-made movement and no one was making them for resale at that time. You know, this is 2013, 2014 we were talking about this and so as we did research, we found those old pocket watches that have been orphaned from their their original cases and we realized that people are literally throwing away those pieces of American history when they were scrapping those gold cases. We figured, you know, we can solve that problem and save those pocket watches and also make one heck of a product at the same time and so we put that idea on Kickstarter in 2014 and apparently it was a good idea because we still exist.


R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: So in the beginning of Vortic, we decided to use metal 3D printing, and it's actually called direct metal laser sintering for our product, because we couldn't afford the minimum order quantities from contract manufacturers. So, if I wanted to make a watch, and I wanted that one manufacturer to just make the case, we would have to order five hundred to a thousand watches worth of cases. The inherent problem with salvaging these pocket watches is they're all different sizes, they're all different configurations, and they were made by, you know, ten different companies across eighty years of production. And so, 3D printing actually solves a lot of those issues because we can make just a couple dozen at a time for a reliable and achievable cost and then we could design all of our fixtures and post-processing to adjust those cases to fit the one-of-a-kind movements that we use. We kind of tripped into what seemed like a really good idea, and it's also been a lot of fun and a huge learning experience as the 3D printing technology has come a long way since we started.

TYLER WOLFE, CO-FOUNDER: So step one to bring a lot of the manufacturing in-house was buying a couple manual machines and that was our introduction into machining. So I would take a case, sit down there and use hand cranks to to move the machine around, and it would take me somewhere between three and four hours to do a case, and when I say three to four hours, that's three to four hours of hands on the machine. So with our Haas CNC Mills, I have to spend a lot more time setting them up. So, designing the fixture, and creating the tool paths, testing a program, but once I make one part it's essentially the press of a button to duplicate it. That's the huge difference. Manual machines are great for making one unique part, but the CNC machines can duplicate that part over and over and over again. Everything we do, I just I like to think we're combining old technology with the most efficient new technology to make something that's totally unique, beautiful, interesting with a story and not charge $50,000 for it.


R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: Our American artisan series is what we call it right now basically our pocket watch conversion it was actually inspired by railroad grade pocket watches. Those railroad grade ones actually are lever set. What that means is there's a lever actuator system near one o'clock on the dial and you actually had to remove the whole front bezel including the glass of the pocket watch to pull that lever in order to set the time and it was literally a safety mechanism on the railroads back then so you couldn't accidentally change what time it was, but for us it makes for a huge engineering problem that we had to solve. And so we invented this casing system for railroad grade pocket watches that we call the railroad edition of the American artisan series. We decided to mill this railroad edition from a block of titanium so that we could make sure absolutely everything is perfect and we could control the entire process on our CNC Mills. Really, what we're able to make now is the product we originally wanted to make, this amazing railroad grade pocket watch. Now we have a home for those.

TYLER WOLFE, CO-FOUNDER: Due to the fact that this lever set system requires access to the movement it is a huge design issue. I don't know the number of iterations that we did before we got to this this final version, but it just, every day, we were like how are we gonna solve this. We use the big wave board and we just kind of sat down and said, what's possible? They would throw out a crazy idea, and I'd say, I guess I can try and make that see if it works, let's see if this works, see if that works. It'd be very strange to sell a watch where a customer can touch the dial and it'd be very strange to sell a watch that's not water resistant. So those two things alone are really what motivate the removable bezel. First of all, it uses a cam lock system instead of a thread. Before it was very difficult to get the front of the watch off and when you take off that bezel the crystal is still in the watch so the customer who does not have any access to the dial. This product is definitely a result of iteration iteration and thinking outside of the box.

R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: What's next for us is fully modern watches and we're still going to make the artisan series with the old pocket watches, but we can layer on a new product line that we can completely design from the ground up, work with the Swiss experts making modern movements for us, and build a product that is truly Vortic, that says it on the dial. And I think that all really ties in well to what we stand for and our tagline which we say America wasn't assembled it was built. And we say that because every watch we make is built here. We try to make as much of it in Colorado, in this building, as we possibly can, and I think that's what separates us from companies that make thousands of the same thing is that every watch is handmade just for you and that to me is the difference between built and assembled.