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Unleashing Engineering Creativity

Thu, 03/14/2013 - 10:32pm
Joseph H. Berk

When faced with creative challenges, many engineers rely on brainstorming as their primary creativity tool. Developed in the 1950s by Alex Osborn (who used it as a tool for developing advertising campaigns), brainstorming is a good approach.  But it’s not the only or best approach, and it often fails to stimulate creativity in a meaningful way.

Besides the idea generation challenge inherent to any creative endeavor, we often face creativity obstacles. Some are physiological (fatigue, nutrition, and exercise), and some are psychological (fear of failure, fear of the unknown, and fear of ridicule, to name but a few). What may well be the biggest obstacle is not knowing how to be creative. The Unleashing Engineering Creativity workshop and book (the book is also available separately) explore powerful creativity stimulation techniques. There are 14 major techniques that should form the basis for any creativity toolkit, and there are several techniques for overcoming creativity obstacles.

Our focus in this article will be on three of our favorite creativity stimulation techniques:  Biomimicry, Nine Screens, and TRIZ. Although our workshop includes all 14 techniques, I will try to give you a taste of them by taking a bit closer look at three of them.

Biomimicry comes from the Greek words bios (meaning life) and mimesis (meaning to imitate). Nature has been developing design solutions for four billion years, and in that time she’s solved a lot of problems. Biomimicry involves looking to nature for creative inspiration. Sometimes simply thinking about examples in nature guides us to solutions; at other times, we can use a more structured approach to state the challenge and follow a guided path to potential solutions. Biomimicry is a fascinating approach with unlimited potential.

Japan’s bullet train’s front end aerodynamics are based on a bird’s profile), the leading edge bumps on wind-powered generators that minimize turbulence and noise are based on whale fins, and smart munitions’ sensor fusion approach for detecting and selecting enemy armored vehicles are based on the rattlesnake’s integration of vibration, heat, and visual inputs.

Another powerful creativity stimulation tool is the Nine Screens approach. We create a 3 x 3 matrix (hence the nine “screens”), and place the design challenge in the center cell. Then we consider the creativity challenge from both system level and time perspectives, with time along one axis and system level along the other. The concept here is to look forward and backward in time (i.e., to the past and the future) for potential solutions, and to consider the challenge from component and higher-level system perspectives. In so doing, we create nine perspectives from which to consider our design challenge.

Our natural tendency might be to always look to the future for new solutions and you might wonder how looking to the past can stimulate our creativity, but examples abound. Consider modern aircraft gun systems. With the advent of jet propulsion at the end of World War II, aircraft velocities increased sharply, and this demanded gun systems with much higher firing rates than the machine guns used on World War II aircraft. Armament engineers found the answer in the Civil-War-era Gatling gun designed nearly a century earlier.

TRIZ is the last creativity stimulation technique we’ll take a brief look at here. Like the other two techniques, it’s treated in-depth in the Unleashing Engineering Creativity book and workshop. TRIZ is an acronym formed from the Russian words for the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. Genrich Altshuller was a Soviet patent officer who noticed inventive patterns in the patent applications he reviewed. Sent to the gulags by Stalin, Altshuller survived to create the TRIZ approach and its 40 inventive principles and contradiction matrix.

The concept consists of stating the creativity challenge and finding its inherent contradiction. We then use the contradiction of two seemingly contradictory requirements (for example, light weight and high strength) to find applicable inventive principles in the contradiction matrix. The inventive principles are usually not direct answers to the creativity challenge, but they are often an excellent point from which to start brainstorming. It’s been said that the bolt action rifle is based on a simple gate latch (it’s a great concept, and it forms the photo on the cover of the Unleashing Engineering Creativity book).

If you’d like to learn more about the creativity stimulation techniques, you can take a free, live web-based course I will be leading at  12 PM, Eastern, on April 25. It’s a real class, not a sales webinar. You’ll go away with a good, practical perspective on how to apply one of the creativity stimulation techniques, namely TRIZ, to the solution of a real engineering challenge. If you like, you can also take part in the engineering design contest, with prizes up to $1,000 in value, which will be announced at the web class. For more information or (free) registration, visit www.eogogics.com/wl13-create.  Just one hour long, the class will be both exciting and fun. Hope you can make it.

 

Joseph H. Berk, a Principal Member of the Eogogics Faculty, offers 30 years of engineering and management experience in high-tech companies. His extensive training and consulting repertoire includes engineering design, product assurance, process improvement, creativity stimulation, project and operations management, quality management, root cause and failure modes/effects analysis, engineering statistics, statistical process control, design of experiments, cost reduction, and technical management/leadership. His industry experience brings a real world touch to his training that course participants love. He also gets high mark from them for his dynamism and humor.

Before starting to training/consult for Eogogics, Joe held executive positions in engineering, quality assurance, and operations. His work has exposed him to a broad range of industries, including electronics, electro-optical, aerospace, automotive, power generation, fuel transport, biomedical, marine, ordnance, consumer goods, water treatment, and metal fabrication to name a few in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, and Asia.

Joe is the author of 10 books on management, continuous improvement, and Unleashing Engineering Creativity (an Eogogics publication) as well as numerous articles appearing in PC World, Manage, National Defense, Contract Management, Test Engineering, Inland Business, and others. Joe holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University and an MBA from Pepperdine University.

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