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Small products, big innovation: The dawn of a nano age?

Nano is the new big. Ecoconcerns, design savvy, and practicality have driven the trend toward small, specialized automobiles.

Europe loves the VW Beetle, the Renault Twingo, and the Smart. The U.S. has the Mini and will finally get the Smart, too. And recently India proudly presented the spiritual successor to all of these--the $2,500 Tata Nano, a "people's car" that is widely gushed about, not only for its surprisingly slick design but also for its innovations.

In recent years, ecoconcerns, design savvy, and an (urban) willingness to quest for practicality have fostered the trend toward specialized cars that are as small as the niches they serve. While the idea of a small car is not new, in the case of the Nano, and that's an interesting addendum, the miniaturization of the product goes along with a miniaturization of price, development process, and distribution model. The Nano is the world's new "cheapest car," it was developed and designed by an off-site micro-organization, and it operates with a decentralized distribution model that allows the suppliers who assemble the car to also sell and service it directly to the consumers. What you can learn from Tata: shrink the product, shrink the feature list (no frills!), shrink the development team (no red tape!), shrink the price (ultra low cost!), and shrink (localize!) assembly and distribution. Think small, score big.

In fact, nano is the new big. Language is always a good indicator of cultural shifts. There is talk of the "Nano-effect," of "nano-sphere," and the magazine Nanowerk observes that, "Over the course of the last 12 months, the LexisNexis database of newspaper articles records 239 stories referring to nanotechnology in the British press. In the same period there have been 239 stories referring to 'iPod' and 'nano'."

India's Economic Times even proclaims the "coming Nano Age:"

"Small is getting a big play. Part of the push is coming from companies eager to stuff cell phones with value add-ons and another is about demonstrating technology that is smart, simple, small and beautiful. (...)Nanotech products or small, nifty gadgets may not be cheap, as the emphasis is not on price cutting but efficiency at a small scale. Though it remains to be seen whether, the Tata Nano, a nanotech medical device or a pocket printer, will set the cash counters ringing."