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How to innovate: five top tips for SMEs

Thermal Road Repairs (TRR) has been developing and improving its thermal – and other – technology for over five years. It hasn’t been an easy journey from great idea to thriving business, but it has been a dynamic one.

Below, we share some of the lessons we learned along the way:

1. Be flexible

What happens if you are developing your product, and another possibility pops up along the way? Our advice would be to be open minded; branch off if it makes sense.

The TRR process grew from the idea for a machine that fixed the longitudinal joints between lanes on motorways. The first machine was quite unwieldy and took time to set up; now we have heaters mounted on the side of a unit that can drive slowly along, heating the joint as they go.

But part way through the R&D process for that system, another application became apparent: repairing potholes, cracks and other defects. Today, there are more TRR pothole repair units out on the road than longitudinal joint repair units – although the balance may swing back now that the technology has all the appropriate permissions for National Highways work.

2. Find allies

Finding the right companies and people to work with – whether up or down the supply chain – can be the key to success or failure. TRR has employed some great engineering minds to work on our technology and has also had great support and feedback from its customers.

In the earlier days of development, main contractor Kier, which has a culture that nurtures new ideas, was an enthusiastic supporter of our technology. And their subcontractor at the time, Associated Asphalt, provided feedback and input which helped us to improve and develop our system. We still enjoy working with both companies today.

3. Don’t underestimate investment

One of the most difficult things for SMEs is securing the funding needed to take an idea through to commercial fruition. Getting shareholders and investors onboard means being able to articulate clearly where you are going and why.

At TRR, we have already invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in R&D. We are fortunate that all of this has come from our shareholders, who are fully committed to the TRR vision.

Don’t forget about R&D tax credits. If you are spending on innovation, you can claim this to receive a cash payment or a reduction in corporation tax.

4. Ready for red tape

As well as the resource needed to physically develop and test new products and equipment, don’t forget to factor in the investment of both time and money which is needed to deal with bureaucracy. This could include the lengthy and expensive process of applying for and achieving a patent – we finally received ours in March 2021 – and going through sometimes long and tortuous approval processes with road owners.

5. More value

Once you have that innovation mindset, it’s surprising how thick and fast new ideas for improvements come. But how do you choose which ones to pursue? Our advice would be to listen to your customers – and their customers – and choose developments that add value for them.

At TRR, we have tried to focus our changes and updates on making our process even lower carbon, and more friendly for both operatives and people nearby. For instance, we upgraded our solar technology to make the charging of our heaters more efficient, and we have vastly reduced the use of tools that can cause HAVS (hand arm vibration syndrome) and noise nuisance.

And it doesn’t stop. Today we have new developments in the pipeline which will lower our carbon footprint even further.

Thermal Road Repairs is a green technology company which supplies systems to improve the quality, cost and time efficiency of road repairs and paving – at a far lower environmental cost than traditional methods. We invest significantly in R&D, to create new technologies and to continuously improve our existing ones.

High output. Low emission. Permanent solution.

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