Developing new products, and finding innovative answers to specific customer applications, is all in a day’s work for the research and development (R&D) division at Pratley. This two-pronged approach has resulted in ongoing success for the manufacturer. “A strong R&D mind-set means the team is always open to finding solutions to problems,” CEO Kim Pratley comments.

Together with sons Andrew and Charles, who are highly passionate about the R&D side of the business, Kim points out that Pratley as a company is predicated on its R&D capability. It also underlines its universal customer manifesto that any of its products will outperform its global equivalent.

Sometimes Pratley’s R&D efforts result in happy coincidences. For example, Pratliperl was originally developed with low-cost housing in mind. This lightweight, thermally-insulating cement aggregate is now widely used in high-end houses and structures as a fireproof plaster that doubles the thermal insulation of walls.

Such an eco-friendly application saves energy and running costs. It is also ideal as a screed where additional building floors are required. Such has been the success of Pratliperl that it is has been used from Loftus Versfeld Stadium to the Sandton City parking lot.

However, a strong R&D component goes hand-in-hand with the ability to shelve products that aren’t working in the market, and Pratley has had a few of those. “Sometimes even the best products don’t find a product-market fit,” Kim notes.

In one memorable case, this was simply because the product worked too well. “We launched a product called Wham a few years ago because customers kept requesting an ultra-quick super-glue,” Andrew recalls. “We wanted to design the fastest adhesive in the world, and we did. But it ended up being practically unusable. It was just too quick for the end user. It was an interesting lesson for the team in giving customers what they need, and not necessarily what they ask for.”

Kim’s favourite experimental product was Palm Cleaner, essentially a glue that stuck to dirt and then rolled off the hands in little balls. “We wanted a solution for dirty palms after you have changed a tyre, for example.” While extremely effective, consumers did not read the instructions, and thought it was a hand cleaner. The result was that Palm Cleaner got stuck to the fine hairs on the back of people’s hands.

It’s these experiments that make Pratley’s R&D process so exciting, and occasionally unpredictable. “We look for problems that have not been solved, or where we can do it better. That involves a lot of trial and error, and we do not always get it right,” Charles stresses. “That is the cost of R&D. You cannot let your ego or personal feelings get in the way of product research.”

Pratley has a department that tests everything in every way that the market could use it. “Interestingly, we often find that we test a product for one thing and end up finding a whole host of other applications for it. Sometimes the larger market is the one we didn’t originally develop the product for,” Kim elaborates.

“It’s an interesting process. You can’t make assumptions about any market, even one you know well, and if you aren’t looking at solutions from every angle, you could miss a huge opportunity. This thinking has become ingrained at Pratley,” Kim concludes.

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