According to the Economist, "Frugal innovation is not just about redesigning products; it involves rethinking entire production processes and business models. Companies need to squeeze costs so they can reach more customers, and accept thin profit margins to gain volume...."
Therein are the dots we can use to connect to Chen’s theory. His 80-3-2 rule also addresses the issue of how a company finds a way to develop a product and a business process to squeeze costs, gain volume and reach millions of new customers.
(Full disclosure here. The Economist article was first pointed out to me by a U.K.-based engineering executive who works for Taiwan’s chip giant MediaTek. He was explaining how MediaTek’s recent success has a lot to do with "frugal innovation." MediaTek, virtually unknown 10 years ago, is now a power house with huge market share in the Chinese smartphone and media tablet markets.)
MediaTek has fundamentally changed the playbook for the chip industry here, especially for smartphones and tablets. More chip suppliers for smartphones and tablets who are competing with MediaTek are now expected to provide similar “turnkey systems” that MediaTek delivers, rather than just reference designs.
Technology development, especially in the electronics industry, has historically been one-dimensional. It all pretty much comes down to how your engineering team makes a system operate faster, run more apps and features, while consuming less power.
Frugal, or reverse, innovation and the 80-3-2 rule both suggest that it’s time to rethink innovation in more in multi-dimensional terms.
I can think of two good examples for how ignoring reverse innovation costs companies.
Much has been written about the decline of mobile phone maker Nokia. Many blame it on Nokia's late entry to the smartphone market. I disagree. Nokia’s failure is directly related to its inability to beat its competitors in the global feature phone market, where Nokia once dominated. Mind you, Nokia had quality products and production was outsourced. Still, Nokia neglected to develop a “good enough” product, and failed to develop a more innovative and imaginative process.
The same goes for Japanese LCD TV manufacturers like Sharp, which insisted on building a mega fab to handle ultra-thin, large LCD panels. Sharp's strategy, which raised Japanese manufacturing to the highest "craftsmanship-like" level, was admirable but, ultimately, wasted effort. Sharp’s job was manufacturing TVs, not developing works of art.
Chinese companies that are repeatedly bashed for their reverse engineering practices may soon surprise the world with their reverse innovation ingenuity. If successful, they could reach the neglected 6 billion people on the earth.
Meanwhile, China's competitors, still steeped in the one-dimensional technology innovation, will be scrambling to compete in the replacement market of 1 billion consumers in developed countries.
I may need to dispute the "Cruze" vs. Corvette comparison. Removing GM from it, I bet more people worldwide would recognize "corvette" than "cruze".
Frugal engineering is just coming about in medical technology. Equipment manufacturers are just finding out that adding more "bells and whistles" to medical equipment is decreasing the relibility of the equipment, making it more complicated to use and endangering patient care.
This Harvard Business Review article may help articulate what Carlos Ghosn, CEO, Renault-Nissan, for example, means by "frugal innovation."
Agreed on the theory, Bert. But you do have to consider the human aspect i.e: being present in all markets dilutes brand value. The average man knows GM for its Chevvy Cruze, not Corvette. And android sales, though robust in volume, is not making money.
Diversification may serve mammoth organizations or supplier organizations. But for consumer markets, where wow factor is important, it may actually hurt sales for the flagship product if diversification is towards the low end of the spectrum. For some companies, again, Apple or BMW, its not worth the risk.
"The bells and whistles are what gives you the premium price, which translates to larger per unit revenue. Think GM vs. BMW. ... They are simply not in the same league."
But even that is overstated. Much of that, too, is merely "common wisdom" and media hype.
First of all, profit does not translate to revenues. A company can make a lot more money by going for more volume of sales and less profit. This allows the company to diversify its products better, sell to more markets or market segments, and so on. Again, Apple is the exception to this rule, not the rule.
As to the GM vs BMW comment, perhaps you should read the current issue of Car and Driver, where they review the Camaro convertible against the BMW 6 series convertible. For that matter, GM has a no-holds-barred sports car, the Corvette, that BMW does not compete against.
What this article explains as a phenomenon for developing country markets is ALSO a phenomenon within any single country. Companies that want to make big revenues are always better off serving more than just the top segments of the economy. Android sales are very good in the US too!
My 2 cents: Android may beat Apple in terms of volume by more than 2x. But what the theory ignores is that volume is not equal to profit. The bells and whistles are what gives you the premium price, which translates to larger per unit revenue. Think GM vs. BMW. Or Apple vs. Mediatech. They are simply not in the same league.
I understand that Apple is an abberation. No company survives with just one model -- iPhone -- for every country.
But the point of this particular story is not about that. It is about how tech companies figure out a "good enough" product, and create a more imaginative business process, to create products in volume at a lower cost for many more people in the developing countries.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.