"When Henry Ford recently unveiled his plastic car, the result of 12 years of research, he gave the world a glimpse of the automobile of tomorrow, its tough panels molded under hydraulic pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch (psi). The only steel in the car is its tubular welded frame. The plastic car weighs a ton, 1,000 pounds lighter than a comparable steel car. Manufacturers are already talking of a low-priced plastic car to test the public's taste by 1943." -- Popular Mechanics, December 1941
Study marketing in the United States and you will learn that almost fifty percent of companies that are first-to-market fail. The failure rate is not solely a reflection of the value of the product. The fact is that many products fail, not because of bad engineering, design or marketing. The reality is: humans harbor a natural aversion to -- or at least suspicion of -- change.
The history of incorporating plastic into automobiles illustrates the reluctance to change. With the notable exception of the Corvette, even with the endorsement of automotive pioneer Henry Ford, it took nearly fifty years for plastic to go mainstream in Detroit. The reluctance on the part of the auto industry had nothing to do with economics. In fact, cars with plastic components would have reduced manufacturing costs, increasing the carmakers' profits. Despite the financial incentive, it still took a five-decade-long evolutionary process to embrace the obvious.
America doesn't have fifty years to adapt to the idea of recycled plastic as a building material. The environmental damage our society inflicts grows worse by the second: examples range from the Gulf of Mexico/BP debacle to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling sea of plastic waste that, by conservative estimates, is the size of Texas. And there's reportedly another one just like it in the Atlantic.
Couple concerns about the environment with almost unanimous agreement that the nation's infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, and you have what would seem like a perfect storm to drive market acceptance of new composite plastics that are capable of replacing legacy building materials. And then you remember Henry Ford. If the nation's carmakers couldn't see the compelling reasons to sell lighter, better-made, less expensive cars for decades, what will it take for the nation to embrace a greener and more economical alternative to building materials?
Not particularly surprising is the fact that architects, engineers, contractors and project managers are extremely hesitant to embrace new building materials, even if newer materials are cost competitive, longer lasting, and green.
Engineers didn't study these new building materials in school. Architects haven't grown up with new composite materials in their homes or in the workplaces. Builders haven't been using them since the first day they went into business. Despite the wealth of research and testing that's been done, the challenges seem more visceral; the challenge is changing the comfort zones.
As a manufacturer of 100% recycled plastic industrial building materials, the challenge of market acceptance is extremely real to me. In fact, our seemingly inborn unwillingness to embrace change threatens our very existence. The materials our company, Axion, produces are designed to replace traditional, decidedly "eco-angry" materials, such as steel, concrete and treated wood.
To put it mildly, any new product, especially one that will change the way business has been done for centuries, faces an uphill battle. In Axion's case, once a critical mass of actors in the building industry sees what can be done using old milk jugs, Styrofoam coffee cups, and recycled car bumpers, I honestly believe there will be a ground swell that will accelerate acceptance at the decision-maker level.
One of the challenges companies face bringing "unknown" materials to market is reaching private-sector early adopters. You may have a slew of tests to support your products' properties and their strengths and weaknesses, but skepticism will limit your initial appeal only to those who are "risk takers" willing to try something different. So the question becomes, what's the most effective means of reaching those hard-to-identify early adopters?
One approach is to improve your chances by targeting other markets where change is more culturally embedded. The Army Corps of Engineers looks at "resource costs." What resources will be required to maintain the projects they install? What will the resource allocation include over the next twenty years? Likewise, in our experience, the green commitment of the military has been strong. Not strong enough that the Army Corps would opt for a green solution whose costs far exceed legacy solutions, but if the materials are competitive, it has been clear to me that the preference is for green solutions. Thus far, that hasn't been the case in private industry.
Axion has worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, Centennial Construction, Parsons Brinckerhoff and others to build the world's first recycled plastic bridges capable of carrying 120-ton locomotives. Other projects include tank bridges able to support 70+ tons at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, pedestrian bridges at Fort Lee, Virginia, along with railroad ties and other railway infrastructure in Morocco, San Francisco, Washington state and a half-dozen other locations.
Some of the key lessons learned have been that the private sector is so focused on the bottom line that unless you're extremely competitive in the short term, long-term benefits have little value. Additionally, being green doesn't seem to be very relevant when it comes to the decision-making process. While it is icing on the cake, a green solution is what sells the cake. The good news is there are early adopters who are willing to try something new. The trick is finding them.
Charles Kettering, the great American inventor who holds 140 patents, including the electric car starter and Freon refrigerant, summed up the challenges and opportunities faced by companies like Axion: "The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress." We intend to help lead the change that will bring progress to the nation's infrastructure.
Jim Kerstein is the CEO of Axion International