Usually, there are better alternatives for starting a new field lab, says Anton Duisterwinkel. Like joining an existing one.
In recent years, we’ve seen field labs popping up in many places and on many subjects. Many are or want to be financed by governments. Some blossom, others barely survive and many silently disappear. Why and when should anyone build a field lab, and what’s needed to become successful?
The best, if not the only, reason to start a field lab or a comparable open-innovation facility is to move a breakthrough technology to industrial application. That’s a complex process because companies lack the knowledge to fully grasp the advantages and intricacies of the breakthrough technology, the facilities to test it and the staff to implement it. Meanwhile, the people who developed it don’t have the market and domain knowledge to understand the real implications, problems, failures and drawbacks of their beautiful new technology. Companies and developers need to work together and be willing to learn from each other.
There are other options, of course, to take a new technology to market, for instance by starting a technology-driven startup. Or a large company essentially buying the technology and its developers. Neither is fail-safe and both are usually slow and address only one ‘killer’ market.
A field lab can more effectively speed up the industrial application when several industrial SMEs and Midcaps (250-1000 staff members) participate, especially if these companies are active in different domains. For this to happen, the field lab at the very least must feature experts, facilities, several potential users and education partners and it must be open to more experts and partners.
To increase the likelihood of success of a new field lab, many more conditions need to be met. To mention just a few: sufficient regional industrial and technology base, sufficient interest from all stakeholder categories mentioned above, no competing field labs close by, clarity on objectives, outcomes and results, independence to ensure agility and flexibility, and so on.
Building a field lab is by no means easy. It takes time, money and stamina – and success is as likely as it is for a startup. In fact, a new field lab in many ways is a startup.
In my experience, there would have been better alternatives for most field labs, such as cooperating or joining forces with an existing field lab. Or start a project, program or e-learning initiative or build a demonstrator lab. For example: at Innovationquarter, we planned to build a field lab for the adoption of exoskeletons by SMEs with manufacturing operations, only to discover that most SMEs couldn’t afford to send their staff to such a facility, losing valuable production time. However, on-site pilot testing of exoskeletons was warmly welcomed. It was actually even more valuable as more staff members could participate in the trial run and they did so under real production conditions.
A field lab isn’t the solution to all problems and in many cases, it’s overkill. If you want to start a field lab, think twice. If you want to finance one, think trice. And if you want to join one, look twice. Is it really a field lab, or is it in fact (as often is the case) a demonstrator or educational facility or a closed project that happens to be called a “field lab”? Each and every one of such initiatives can be very valuable, but they don’t deliver what a real field lab can deliver. The price tag should take that into account.
Want to read more? Download Innovationquarter’s whitepaper, “How to build a successful field lab”.