Innovation – misused and misunderstood

The cynics among you will no doubt claim that I am being lazy by starting a second, consecutive column with a well-established saying. Of course, I would retort that this is just a coincidence and, once again, it is an appropriate introduction to the topic that I wish to write about. While waffling on, I have realised that by citing an established saying yet again, I am contradicting the very saying that I intend to use to lead into this month’s theme: ‘A change is as good as a rest!’ So, no rest for you as you start the new year.

Even for someone as long in the tooth as I am, I find that I regularly need, and welcome, selective change in order to provide variety and challenge. I have mentioned, once or twice, that I enjoy reading. However, I regularly change from fiction to non-fiction and from genre to genre depending on how I am feeling. Similarly, I will listen to one radio channel in particular only to find that it eventually becomes too predictable. So, I will move on to another channel and repeat the cycle. I now find myself listening to the BBC World Service programme. It provides me with access to stories and news items that are not covered by more parochial UK stations.

On Remembrance Day, the first piece on the Outlook programme described how Juan Carlos Ortiz, from Colombia, won a prestigious advertising award. He was tasked by the Colombian army with
devising a way of communicating with soldiers held captive by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in remote jungle camps. The initial step was to investigate all possible options: could they use the rivers; how about aeroplane vapour trails? One constraint was the need to be able to pass on the message without the guerrillas being aware of it. As Juan Carlos Ortiz put it, they had to think ‘how to see without the eyes’. One key piece of information they had was that the captives were allowed to listen to the radio in the morning. So, they produced a pop song that had the message in Morse code integrated into the chorus. You may still be able to hear the programme and the music at:

Innovation is a word that has now become overused, being touted as evidence of potential improvements behind which people can shield from any likely criticism. With its increased use in the business vernacular has come an attendant confusion in the definition of innovation. There are numerous and different definitions.

The definition I favour is one that the old Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) promulgated: innovation is the successful implementation of new ideas. Success is inherent in innovation. Innovation is a word that looks backwards; it does not come into being until success has been achieved. The communication of a message using Morse code embedded in a pop song is an ideal example of innovation. It is not invention; it does not have to be new technology. Morse code is not new. The passing of messages by radio is not new. It was done during the Second World War when pre-planned phrases were transmitted over the airwaves. What was new was the way in which the message was disguised in a pop song that had high appeal and so was frequently played. The soldiers, trained in Morse code, heard the message, while the non-target audience just heard a catchy song, which they wanted to play and listen to, aiding its transmission. It was a success.
Innovation is important: it helps us as individuals, as companies and as a profession to adjust and develop in response to the external changes that occur, or are imposed on us. Just because the term is abused and misused does not mean we should ignore it; we do not want to throw away the baby with the bath water. Overall, our achievement of innovation has been mixed within non-destructive testing (NDT). There have been ad-hoc innovations by individuals and companies. However, the process is hampered by the confidentiality that surrounds inspection results and performance and a general reluctance to change the status quo. This, along with other factors, is one reason I believe that NDT technological innovation is particularly slow.

Casper Wassink investigated technical innovation in a thesis, published in 2012, titled: ‘Innovation in Non-Destructive Testing’. He confirmed that the time span to produce a new product, starting from an idea, is on average 30 years! Two of the reasons for this, identified from the interview research he conducted, were that codes and standards play a role in keeping NDT conservative and that NDT is of low priority unless an accident happens. Casper also identified that the economic value of NDT is mostly unexpressed, which is in part due to the potentially conflicting objectives for NDT: to safeguard the public and to optimise the benefit of a capital asset. The suggested solution to this problem is that NDT should fall under corporate social responsibility.

It would be interesting to see, six years after publication, how much of the information contained in the thesis has been exploited by the NDT industry and if any of the recommendations made have been adopted. Maybe this can be the basis of a New Year’s resolution for the profession: to make 2018 the year of NDT innovation. A happy New Year to you all!

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX.
Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

Comments by members

This forum post has no comments, be the first to leave a comment.

Submit your comment

You need to log in to submit a Comment. Please click here to log in or register.

<< Back