The inventor of a new plumbing product caught me at lunch recently, just as I was reading a Wall Street Journal article about companies that continue to innovate during the recession. What caught my attention in the article was the notion that firms must continue to invest in research and development when times are tough if they stand a chance to compete when the economy turns around.

The inventor called me to tell me about his product - a stainless steel sink. We visited his company’s Web site from our respective computers as he walked me through the product’s features.

When I asked him how long his product had been on the market, he said about a year and a half. In other words, the same period the economy has been mired in a recession. I commented that his timing could have been better.

“Inventors don’t think that way,” he told me. “People are more open to ideas now. People need help more than ever now. There’s not as much competition as you usually have. It’s all about bringing value to people.”

Indeed, some very successful products were launched during a recession and even the Great Depression, the WSJ article points out. The list ranges from the iPod by Apple to fuel-efficient jet engines by GE to boxed macaroni-and-cheese by Kraft.

The list need not be confined to large corporations. Your company could join the list as well.

Innovation comes in different shapes and sizes. It could just as well involve a new service you offer as it does a new product.

A common misconception about innovation is that it springs full blown as a single “Eureka!” moment. Far more often, it’s full of trial and error.

As engineers, you can take this time to turn your company into an authority on designing green plumbing systems. Many building owners could use your help to sort out the overload of information presented to them.

Or, you can learn to use Building Information Modeling. A speaker at last month’s Plumbing Manufacturers Institute meeting said engineers are using BIM to eliminate redundant documents, manage conflicts in building systems and integrate engineering analysis with shop drawings.

Another misconception about innovation is that it is a lonely pursuit. You can find innovative ideas from sharing experiences with colleagues as members of professional associations, such as ASPE. These organizations offer training and networking opportunities that can take your firm into exciting new directions.

The nature of today’s economy keeps many of us spending more time doing the same types of business activities with diminishing results. Just finding the time to innovate can be a daunting task.

When business does get better, it likely will not be the same as it was before the recession. Take the time to innovate your company now to position yourself for success.