Horizontal innovation is the concept of sharing skills from one area or sector and applying them in an entirely new way in order to drive progress. Although industrial collaboration has been around for decades, horizontal innovation takes it a step further, facilitating immediate results in the form of creative problem solving, cost and operational efficiencies and allows companies to fast track the R&D process saving both time and money.

Horizontal innovation has been pioneered by the motorsport industry. Automotive manufacturers have been lending innovative technologies and engineering capabilities to other sectors for decades, allowing rapid product development, avoidance of innovation fatigue and the ability to solve pre-existing challenges throughout many sectors including defence, rail and aerospace.

For example, Metlase, a joint venture business between Rolls-Royce and Unipart Rolls-Royce Aerospace, applies patented techniques from the aerospace industry, to a vast range of problems across all areas of the value chain. To facilitate collaboration through horizontal engineering, engineers from Metlase are briefed on a manufacturing challenge which they then analyse, allowing them to provide critical design and manufacturability support. This allows partners to roll out new technology, based on tried and tested designs in other sectors, to achieve improved production capabilities.

As Steve Dunn, Managing Director of MetLase explains; “Our engineers will look at the customer’s specific issue and, using our patented technology, design and create a specific solution to address their challenge. For example, what has worked perfectly in aerospace, with a few expert adjustments, can be just as suitable for healthcare, construction or renewables.”

Horizontal innovation is being increasingly used in the healthcare sector, whereby advanced technology commonly used in automotive manufacturing is integrated into equipment such as incubators to record and store important data. For instance, Williams Advanced Engineering, an arm of the UK-based Williams F1 team, have designed a paediatric incubator in collaboration with healthcare firm Advanced Healthcare Technology (AHT) through horizontal innovation, applying automotive technology to solve a health challenge. The incubator is made from carbon fibre – the same material used in Formula One cars’ bodywork – so it can withstand a 20 G-force impact and provides newborns with a secure, temperature-controlled environment for ambulance transportation. The incubator monitors vibrations experienced by babies during the transit allowing medical professionals to identify potential rises and falls in heart rate and blood pressure.

Elsewhere, in the healthcare sector, a team of engineers from the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at Cambridge University has used modelling tools designed to boost factory efficiencies to help Addenbrooke’s Hospital to better manage sudden surges in patient numbers, whilst during the pandemic, Siemens UK, Digital Industries (DI), Industry Software, Siemens Healthineers and Siemens Energy used horizontal innovation to produce 13,500 medical devices in just 12 weeks. Working together, the teams worked from home to design and build a factory from scratch and scale production from 10 ventilators to 1,500 per week.

Horizontal innovation is also being used by major UK supermarkets, to reduce the energy consumed by industrial refrigerators by using Formula One technology. The retrofit aerofoil system allows stores to retain cold air inside the refrigerator than other materials, and initial results by Sainsbury’s and Asda, show an average energy saving of 21% per store – a significant number given that supermarket refrigerators consume around 3% of the country’s electricity each year.

The key opportunity horizontal innovation facilitates is the ability to leverage existing technology to deliver efficiency and major financial potential. As Naomi Climer, president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) explains, effective commercialisation of innovation is often an opportunity missed by many manufacturers. “All too often, when technology reaches the market, we fail to fully exploit its full potential, locking ourselves in to just one sector, missing out on the potential benefits and rewards that could be created by breaking down silos and crossing boundaries.”

She added: “Horizontal innovation is something that all manner of industries and sectors could benefit from and could lead to the answers for some of the world’s greatest challenges. Healthcare and retail are just two industries that are already seeing the benefits of leveraging cross-sector knowledge and technology transfer from parallel industries, but there could be many more.”

Indeed, it appears the appetite to develop the potential of horizontal innovation and partnerships to deliver it is there, and indeed growing. As Steve Dunn, Managing Director of MetLase states, there is a “willingness of companies to adapt core manufacturing infrastructure to ensure their teams are getting the most out of existing capital equipment. This does not just mean greater efficiency on the existing operations they’re being used for now, but also adapting machinery to enable a wider variety of parts or processes to be carried out.”

However, according to Climer, size can prohibit the ability to utilise horizontal innovation. Many larger organisations suffer from ‘innovation fatigue’ whereby staff have run out of new ideas or simply no longer understand new technologies or processes to push forward new product development. “Many lack the freedom to operate innovatively or take risks” she explains, yet nimble, fast-moving SMEs are not handicapped by such issues and therefore hold major potential in helping to nurture horizontal innovation and deliver huge value for larger businesses as a result.

In addition, according to  IET’s head of sectors, Gordon Attenborough; “To ensure horizontal innovation is successful and as far reaching as possible, it’s vitally important to engage with people outside of industry, not solely engineers and technologists.” Doing so ensures that new technology in manufacturing is fully utilised to maximise its value across all potential opportunities.

The manufacturing industry was already undergoing a transformation brought about by the digital revolution, but the global pandemic has shifted the direction of this evolution and may have even created a new paradigm for manufacturing of the future. As supply chains around the world ground to a halt and buyer behaviour changed overnight, organisations were forced to re-examine everything – from business models to operational efficiency and production. As a result, many are now questioning whether the previous approach of ‘more of the same – done better, faster, cheaper’ will result in the manufacturing renaissance the global economy needs, or whether instead, new methodologies – such as horizontal innovation – that effectively identify and exploit innovations and market opportunities are the best way of redefining a manufacturing approach that is fit for the new normal.


Subscribe to our newsletter.