Mobile air compressors don’t seem like a product that would be ripe for innovation. After all, they’ve been a staple of the construction industry for decades, where they’re used to power tools such as nail guns and jackhammers.
But there was a problem. Compressors were so heavy and bulky that they needed to be towed behind a truck. That’s where Vancouver Island’s VMAC came up with a better idea. That idea revolutionized the mobile compressor industry and created a robust international business for VMAC.
The company developed a rotary screw compressor technology in the late 1990s that made air compressors lighter, more powerful and compact enough to fit under the hood of a truck.
"There weren’t a lot of folks pushing the envelope of this technology," says Jim Hogan, president and co-founder of VMAC. "They were either complacent or not technically savvy enough. So we took advantage of that opportunity."
Today, VMAC’s full line of compressors and systems can be found in thousands of vehicles worldwide. And with 10 of its 70 employees focused on R&D, the new products, improvements and efficiencies keep coming. The company, which does most of its design, engineering and manufacturing at a three-hectare facility in Nanaimo, has won multiple awards for its manufacturing excellence and business savvy.
VMAC (Vehicle Mounted Air Compressors) is among the thousands of Canadian companies that are developing new products or improving existing technologies, processes, designs and marketing to solve problems and reach new customers. Now, the challenge is to persuade thousands more—particularly small and medium-sized businesses—to do the same.
"To stay competitive these days, entrepreneurs should invest in their capacity to innovate," says Jean-René Halde, president and CEO of the Business Development Bank of Canada. "In other words, they should invest in things that enable them to constantly improve their products and services, and how they produce them. An investment in information and communications technologies is a good place to start."
The greatest source of innovation will always be business leaders with a sustained commitment to doing things better and a willingness to seize opportunities, Halde adds.
"I believe the fundamental challenge Canada faces is one of mindset," he says. "Companies of all sizes must understand that their company’s competitiveness depends on their capacity to innovate and to adjust their investment decisions accordingly. Embrace risk-taking and aim higher. Aim for the top."
Here are some tips on how to adopt an innovative mindset:
- With your team’s help, develop a strategy for improving your products or services, your processes, your marketing strategy, your business model and your supply chain. Then keep it up to date.
- Tap the creativity of your employees. They have intimate knowledge of your business and industry, and will often be your best source of ideas.
- Look for ideas and feedback from suppliers, customers and other stakeholders. An idea could be as simple as changing a process, adapting a product to a new market or exploring new ways to reach customers.
- Invest in capital assets that improve your competitiveness, especially information and communications technology. The high Canadian dollar can make this a particularly good time to invest.
- Don’t look for the magic bullet. Focus on continuous incremental improvements.
- Study innovation, change and creativity. Educate yourself. Go to conferences and travel.
- Take action on new ideas. Even if they fail, have faith that you’re on the path to innovation.
VMAC was founded by Jim Hogan and Tony Menard, both engineers who were determined to deliver reliable, high-performance products that are lightweight, compact and durable. Constantly changing truck designs keep VMAC on its toes, sometimes leaving them with only a few weeks’ notice to adapt their compressor to fit into smaller engine compartments.
"I’ve developed my own philosophy about innovation," Hogan says. "It may sound corny, but you have to think you’re smart and try things."
"If you don’t, your competitors eventually will. The prize goes to the people with the guts to try."
Content in this section is provided in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada. BDC provides entrepreneurs with financing, venture capital and consulting services. To find out more go to BDC.ca.