Test. Validate. Go! Our tradition of innovation
20 years ago, it used to be very simple. When I had an idea for a product or a
feature I would leave my desk, go down to the manufacturing floor and ask the
technician to scoot over so I could try it out. An hour later I would know if I had
something worth investing in, or whether this whole idea would just be a big flop.
Years later, I found out that this innate development process even had a really fancy
name: “Rapid Prototype Development”.
From the ground up - a company’s innovation DNA
The importance of innovation has been deeply ingrained into Netafim's culture and DNA. In the company’s early days, almost all innovation originated with the product development team. We envisioned a product that didn’t exist and because we were a company of farmers and ex-farmers, and every engineer and product developer had his roots in the field and was deeply connected to the needs of farmers, most of the time we got it right.
Over time, as the company matured and expanded, things have changed, both in how we develop and what we develop. The development of a new product now involves long brainstorming sessions, 3D modeling, prototyping and focus groups. It takes awhile before we start manufacturing anything. What we develop has also changed. As a mature company, we don’t need to invent drip irrigation. It's been around for 55 years and it has revolutionized farming. What we focus on now is delivering higher precision, advanced digital tools and comprehensive end-to-end irrigation and fertigation solutions. Nowadays, innovation reflects our attention and response to our customers’ needs and problems.
Yet despite these changes, I am proud to say that at the heart of Netafim there is a passion for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. It illuminates everything we do and keeps us focused on finding creative solutions to compliment the ever modernizing agricultural business.
Here’s how this constant pursuit of innovation drives our ag-tech inventions to a
whole new level.
A dripline development inspired by a car bumper
Streamline™ X - the toughest thin wall dripline ever made.
In 2012 I lived in China serving as Netafim’s technical manager in APAC. When
visiting farming operations throughout Asia, I kept hearing growers complain about the difficulty they had installing and retrieving their thin wall drip lines without them getting damaged.
The complaint was always the same, “I don’t have time to treat the dripline with kid gloves. I need a product that will serve my needs and not the other way around.” Everybody in the industry knew the existing product was not working well, and that there was a real need for a more robust yet cost effective solution. As industry leaders we were expected to take the leap and face the challenge.
And so we did. I still have the napkin on which I drew the first sketch of what would later become Streamline™ X. The idea was remarkably simple. Just like cars have bumpers that protect their chassis from being damaged, this new dripline would be shielded by external and internal ribs that would act as a barrier between the ground and the pipe and protect the dripline from installation-related cuts and tears.
On one of my visits to Israel, I booked some time with the engineers on the
manufacturing floor. We developed a basic prototype and tested it. Then we sent some samples to growers. The feedback was immediate; it was a robust, durable and reliable dripline which made dripline installation and retrieval smoother than ever. It saved the growers in terms of the cost of labor and gave them peace of mind. And yet, we didn’t invent a new product. We took an existing one, and drew technology from a different industry to boost its performance in ways no one else could even imagine.
Chronic pain calls for a disruptive solution.
FlexNet™ - The Portable, Leak free Sub-main pipe You can REALLY trust
Sub-main pipes have always been sturdy, heavy and non-portable. Carrying them was challenging, installation was labor-intensive, and maintenance was a killer. Farmers needed a solution: a flexible, portable, lightweight and leak-free sub-main pipe that would be easy to install, maintain and retrieve with no bucking and twisting.
Everybody knew this was a real pain that required an innovative solution. Making it happen though, was a huge challenge. We had to push our own boundaries and develop everything from scratch; the raw materials for the pipes, the integrated connectors, the machine for the production line. Solving the pipe snaking required some serious math. As it turned out, sub-main pipes snake because axial forces create axial extensions. If we were to eliminate the pipe’s snaking, we would need to reduce the axial forces to almost zero. This meant tilting the structure of the sub- main pipe fabric to an off angle.
Math I knew well (it pays to be the class nerd...) but I knew nothing about fabrics. We had to find a tech partner that specialized in manufacturing fabric. I met with 40 manufacturers until I found the right partner, a company that believed in what we were trying to achieve and was up for the challenge. Together we developed a new process of making a bias fabric and laminating two off angle fabrics. And here it was - FlexNet™ - a ground-breaking sub-main piping solution that is easy to install, retrieve and relocate that does not snake - a patented solution that has revolutionized the lives of growers worldwide.
What I took from this development process that lasted five years is, in my opinion, the essence of innovation. If you can see it in your mind, have the drive to follow through, the stamina to handle obstacles, and if your process is always inline with your customers needs - you’re going to make it. And yes, never compromise on finding the right partner to accompany you on this rollercoaster.
When innovation is just about asking the right question
NetBow™ - An innovative user-friendly container irrigation ring with multi-outlet emitters.
Several years ago on a work trip to Mexico I visited an organic blueberry farm. While walking around with the farm manager who gave me a short tour, I asked him what would make his work easier and more productive. As it turned out, his main challenge involved maintaining uniform growing conditions and in particular, uniform irrigation. This sparked the idea for NetBow™ - a container irrigation multi-outlet dripper arc. This user friendly solution enables surface wetting that distributes the water uniformly in the container substrate from top to bottom with no blind spots. It guarantees high clogging resistance and is super easy to install and operate.
Voila! A simple plastic ring with 8 holes. Anyone could have thought about it, yet we were the ones that did. And yes, NetBow™ didn’t rock the world of farming, but it did provide an on-target solution to a specific pain shared by many growers. Using NetBow™, the plant roots develop in every square inch of the container ensuring the plant reaches its full growth potential and delivers the best ROI. Simple and smart.
Out-of-the-box thinking as a corporate value
I am so proud to be part of this “dare to make a difference” mentality which is deeply rooted in Netafim’s DNA. A company which was founded on innovation, continued to invest in development throughout the years and practices it today, almost methodically, as a mature and large corporation.
A few years back, Tom Chi, an ex-Google X engineer and a mastermind at rapid prototype development delivered a fascinating lecture to the Netafim management team. Chi introduced his methodology for innovating: ”You have an idea? Great! Don’t spend time overthinking it, just go and give it a try!“ The message was simple and inspiring. When you have an idea for a product, don’t waste your time developing it till you reach perfection. Instead, start by creating a quick prototype and test it with your potential customers and users. Then go back to the lab or manufacturing floor and start refining it. The feedback you get from users during this early development stage is the best way to validate your idea.
When I listened to his practical mantra and the many case studies of companies who were successfully implementing rapid prototype development processes, it suddenly hit me that without naming it or knowing that it even had a name, that this is exactly what we have been doing in Netafim for years. And that Streamline™ X, FlexNet™, NetBow™ and many other products are the outcome of this unique Netafim “Let’s go give it a try” spirit.