The year is 1910, and Henry Ford’s Model T is rolling off the assembly line. It soon will join some 8,000 other automobiles currently in the U.S., motoring along at a brisk pace of 10 mph along 144 miles of paved roads – and “gassing up” at the local druggist.

Fast forward 101 years, and today’s innovation is no less thought-provoking. Along with cars run on electric power in an effort to save resources and the environment, consumer products fueled by market research are hitting the streets in record pace. This year alone will see such creations as microwave popcorn that opens into a self-contained serving bowl, a “super cleaning” skin cleansing system that scrubs away dead skin and dirt, and a new, hyper-foam toothpaste that cleans teeth amid a shampoo-like foam.

Then as now, research-driven innovation drives the U.S. marketplace. After a year or recession-fueled stagnation, new product introductions in the U.S. hit 40,820 in 2010, up over 2,000 from 38,738 the year prior, notes research firm Mintel.

The trend points to “a ramp-up in risk taking,” Tom Vierhile, director of product launch analytics at researcher Datamonitor, told USAToday.

But what drives innovation? Simplicity, utility and expediency – sustained over time. Innovation is not a one-time “Eureka!” moment, but is entrenched in a company’s culture.

For example, Mr. Ford’s vision lives to this day; Ford was the one U.S. automaker that declined government bail-out money. Today, instead of focusing on repayment, the company is creating cars infused with amenities customers want – like iPod ports, voice-driven commands and innovative styling, all while keeping price and value in mind.

Whether Henry Ford or his progeny generations later, innovation has delivered on several key mandates. It…

… goes against conventional thinking. To create his assembly line, Henry Ford looked beyond traditional handcrafting assembly methods to a manufacturing process where “interchangeable parts were added a product in a sequential manner using optimally planned logistics to create a finished product much faster,” Wikipedia says. His work even led to dramatic social ramifications borne of mass production – ranging from higher wages for his workers to affordability of his vehicles.

… is borne from really listening to the customer. Customers were clamoring for vehicles, yet prices were too high. Mass production lowered costs

… incorporate key innovation points, like creating and sustaining innovation, fostering a healthy new product development process, and creating value amid a culture of observation, measurement and accountability.

As the economy gains momentum toward recovery – like a Ford Model T rolling off the assembly line – Chief Innovation Officers and new product development managers alike will be challenged to ensure innovation remains part of the company’s culture and product line.

By Robert Brands

Robert Brands is the founder of, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation“: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, with Martin Kleinman and which will be published in April 2010 by Wiley (