Did you get some nanotechnology on your pants?

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So yes, technology is getting smaller and more powerful every day, but most of us don’t know just how small we can go. Researchers have developed machines the size of just a few atoms that do incredibly powerful things like detect cancer tumors in the liver, and strengthen metal at the atomic level. My most favorite nanotechnology though is the “never-get-dirty khaki pants.”

Here’s how it works

Never-dirty pants work like this — each fiber of fabric is coated with “nano-whiskers”, which are surface fibers of 10 to 100 nanometers. The nano-whiskers keep dirt from reaching the fabric. This technology was developed by Nano-Tex, a Burlington Industries subsidiary. Usage is now expanding to include shirts and ties.

Why nanotech and pants

Think about it — if clothing manufacturers start making pants that never ever get dirty, who will be affected? Consumers will be overjoyed, but drycleaners, laundry detergent companies and distributors will see a measurable disruption in their business. And seriously, who ever thought the laundry industry would be ousted by atomic-sized machine technology?

In real life we’re all vulnerable to new technology (of any size and shape, really) coming along and wiping out our business model. I’m waiting for the phone call from Proctor & Gamble where they say, “We have to salvage our laundry soap lines — these ‘pants whiskers’ are wiping us out! What are we to do?” I get calls like this every so often companies that are being cannibalized by technologies that were developed to make their customers’ lives easier. Remember the typewriter? Vinyl records? Leather bound books?

The Ice Man cometh

So what do you do when technology comes to take your customers? (Because sooner or later … it will) The real issue is more of a long-term cause-and-effect scenario. As industries grow to a certain size, they tend to rest on their laurels just a bit. They figure that they own the marketplace and so they’re satisfied with that status. They stop innovating, changing, and adapting to every whim of their customer base.

Complacency opens the door for novel technologies to come in and grab customers. It always has and always will. The real protection for companies is to remember that owning market share is a competitive position and it’s never guaranteed to be there from one day to the next. We re-earn our customers every day, whether we’re selling toothpaste, microchips, or pants with whiskers.

What to watch for

The warning bell of complacency sounds like this: “Well I don’t know why we do it that way; It’s just how we do it.” If you hear this from your customer service department, product development, or sales departments, it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror to see if complacency has infected your business.

Fostering innovation isn’t easy. There are implications all the way up and down the chain of command, but isn’t it better to protect yourself with relevance than to have your business swept out from under you by a new company that reacts quickly to the marketplace and innovates for better efficiency in serving customers?

And I know you’ve all heard this a million times. I’m bringing it up because we’ve been in an economic slump for so long that the money spent on innovation and disruptive change in companies has stopped flowing, which makes you more vulnerable, and we could start snowballing. Spend on innovation. Make changes now when demand is slower — it’s a huge opportunity and a huge insurance policy for the future.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.