Recession Makes Innovation More Critical Than Ever for Competitiveness

The recession has expanded the business advantages of Georgia manufacturers that compete on the basis of innovation in new or technologically improved products, processes, organizational structures or marketing practices. These innovative companies are more than twice as profitable as firms competing on the basis of low price.

That’s one conclusion of the 2010 Georgia Manufacturing Survey, which also found that companies are preparing for post-recession growth, expanding export capabilities, addressing sustainability issues — and still dealing with out-sourcing and in-sourcing. The survey, which included nearly 500 manufacturers, was conducted by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy, and Kennesaw State University, with support from the Georgia Department of Labor and accounting firm Habif, Arogeti & Wynne, LLP.

Georgia has approximately 10,000 manufacturers that provide nearly 350,000 jobs and account for 11 percent of the gross state product. Workers in manufacturing companies earn wages averaging nearly twice those of workers in retail companies.

The survey found a widening profitability gap between manufacturers that compete on the basis of innovation compared to those that use other competitive strategies. That gap has grown in each survey conducted since 2002.

“Companies that compete on the basis of innovation are much more profitable, pay higher wages and more likely to benefit from in-sourcing opportunities than firms that compete on low price,” said Jan Youtie, the survey’s director and a principal research associate in Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. “Adoption of an innovation strategy can be useful to manufacturers regardless of industrial segment, and is especially important during difficult economic times.”

As part of the survey, companies were asked to rank six competitive strategies for their importance to winning sales. More than half of the respondents mentioned “high quality,” while approximately 20 percent chose “low price” or “adapting to customer needs.” Fewer than 10 percent reported “innovation/new technology” as a primary competitive strategy.

Across all six strategies, innovation was associated with the highest mean return on sales: 14 percent, compared to just six percent for the low-price strategy. And those financial benefits extended to workers, whose annual salaries averaged $10,000 per year more at innovative manufacturers than at other companies.

The top five innovative tactics reported by respondents were (1) working with customers to create or design a product, process or other innovation, (2) signing a confidentiality agreement to access a new product or process, (3) working with suppliers to create or design a product, process or other innovation, (4) purchasing new equipment, and (5) conducting research and development activities in-house.

While manufacturers of technology products are most often associated with the strategy, innovative companies can be found in all industrial segments, said Philip Shapira, co-director of the survey and professor in the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy.

“Many people think that innovation is something that has to be done in a lab, but our results show that innovation occurs more broadly, particularly as companies partner with customers and suppliers to take into account their needs for a new product or process,” he explained. “While high technology companies tend to be innovative by their nature, innovation occurs across all segments, and every firm has opportunities to be innovative.”

Companies often cite cost as a reason for not innovating, but Shapira noted that only 10 percent of companies take advantage of R&D tax credits; fewer still use investment tax credits. “While financial incentives can assist innovation, there is a greater need to build awareness and capabilities among more of the state’s firms to undertake innovation,” he said.

Though more than two-thirds of Georgia’s manufacturers have cut jobs or lost sales in the recession, many of these companies are now looking toward the future with plans for locating new customers, boosting capital investment, expanding research and development and continuing to reduce costs.

“When we look at their plans, Georgia manufacturers are in an expansive mood, looking for new customers and getting ready for the next phase of economic growth,” Youtie said.

The survey found that 70 percent of respondents were looking for new customers, 20 percent planned to expand capital investment, and 15 percent planned to increase expenditures on research and development. At the same time, 60 percent of respondents said they still planned to cut costs.

Another trend studied was growth in the number companies selling to international markets. More than half of the responding manufacturers said they were exporters — and those manufacturers reported 50 percent higher profitability than non-exporters. Some 22 percent of respondents had increased their export sales since the last survey in 2008.

“We don’t find much difference between exporting companies when comparing them by the amount they export,” Youtie noted. “What seems to be important is the capability to export. We think there is some learning that takes place, and some capability that a company develops to become an exporter. That capability translates into improved performance across the board, in addition to creating new markets and different margins.”

The survey also found that out-sourcing of work has leveled off, with approximately 16 percent of manufacturers affected by the loss of business in 2010. At the same time, the percentage of firms benefitting from in-sourcing — movement of work to Georgia — has grown to nearly 15 percent.

“Out-sourcing isn’t going away, but it has stabilized,” Youtie said. “In-sourcing appears to be growing, which creates opportunities for good manufacturers to benefit from consolidation of production from other U.S. facilities or even from overseas.”

The study also looked at sustainability issues, and found that 60 percent of companies recycle and attempt to reduce waste — one form of sustainability. However, just 11 percent of respondents had inventoried their carbon footprints or emissions, and fewer than five percent were using renewable energy.

The bottom line for manufacturers?

“The results of our survey can point manufacturers to a way forward for getting ready for the next phase,” said Youtie. “Companies can develop innovation capabilities; they can look into exporting and they can collaborate more with suppliers and customers.”

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Writer: John Toon