Innovation Is As Much Connection As Invention

Some of the greatest game-changing innovations resulted only when the idea was connected with the capability to pull it off.

Some of the greatest game-changing innovations resulted only when the idea was connected with the capability to pull it off. Use today’s ready access to information and specialized expertise to connect your ideas and needs with the technologies and processes to make them possible.

Grade school history class may have been dull for most of us, but there is a great deal of ancient history’s lessons that we can still apply, even in today’s rapidly evolving technological age. The roadblocks and the enablers for technological advancement in the past are the same today. Sometimes the advancement can’t be made until the skills, technologies, or processes are found to enable them.

Let’s take, for example, the development of the cannon. Gunpowder was invented in China during the late 800’s A.D. Perhaps “invented” should be replaced by “discovered” since it was a quest for an elixir of life that led to its creation, not a desire for an explosion. However, it didn’t take long before the Chinese we using it to shoot arrows or debris out of bamboo barrels and making rockets and bombs.

However, it wasn’t until gunpowder made its way to Europe that a truly viable cannon appeared on the scene. The first “fire pots” appeared in 1346 and by the 1350’s gunpowder field guns or cannons were appearing in most field combat records. By the 1400’s they were destroying castles and city walls.

In 1453 the Ottoman Turks used a giant cannonade, tossing granite projectiles that weighed a full ton, to tear down the walls of Constantinople and conquer the city. Those walls were considered the greatest and most fortified of their time and the whole world took note.

In short, gunpowder’s potential to change warfare was imagined in the late 800’s China, but it didn’t find a truly influential or effective gunpowder-utilizing device until the mid 1300’s and only after it found its way to Europe. Yet within about 50 years of its first real success it had evolved to astounding capability. Why is that? I’ll give you a clue: it’s not because the Europeans were more inventive than the Chinese.

Simply put, the Europeans had something the Chinese did not. They had church bells. The Europeans had developed the knowledge, skills, and methods for casting exceptionally pure (sound quality), and durable bronze castings of very great size. It was the technological capability to cast church bells that presented the Europeans with the ability to realize the potential of gun powder artillery because it gave them the craft and the ability to harness the immense pressure of a gun powder explosion.

That’s right, the idea was around for 400 years and had travelled the world before it was finally connected with the means to fulfill it’s potential. Today, ideas can travel the world in a few seconds. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are connected with the technologies, skills, methods, or knowledge to make them possible. Connecting our ideas with the right expertise is still difficult, especially when we don’t yet know what expertise is required. Obviously if the Chinese had known that European bell craft would have made their gunpowder artillery so effective they would have recruited it.

Our challenge is further complicated by our desire to possess the secrets, the patent rights for example, so that our business can benefit. The desire for secrecy and ownership often keeps us from putting up a Web page that says, “Hey, we have an idea to change the world and make a lot of money, but we need someone to tell us how to do it.” And, even when we do brave such an announcement, there is no assurance that those who could help are reading it and responding.

Research universities and laboratories are great places to find technologies, theories, and groundbreaking methods. Unfortunately, unless we know what we are looking for and also which labs or universities are researching what, it is hard to know where to start. We can engage universities to research and develop solutions to our problems, but that effort is typically very time consuming and we may not want to wait that long. So, what can we do?

In my product development and innovation adventures, my colleagues and I have succeeded with two very different solutions. The first is to utilize part of the TRIZ method for inventive problem solving. The second is to contract the expertise of an innovation think tank skilled in the research and marriage of various technologies to specific problems.

The TRIZ method can be found and researched with a simple Web search using the “TRIZ” keyword. There are a few organizations that can teach engineering groups how to use the method, and the search will lead one to them. The TRIZ method incorporates an approach by which the team with the problem or the idea breaks down the challenge to one or a few basic needs.

TRIZ incorporates as list of approximately 40 ways that virtually every problem is solved. For example, something must be moved, or removed, or opened, or transformed, etc. Once you have identified what your problem needs something to do, you then research how other fields, industries, or technologies accomplish the same need. Then you investigate to see if that other industry’s solution can be adapted to solve your problem.

Here is a common example among TRIZ circles. As aluminum is produced, the kilns tend to build up with waste crud. That crud is so difficult to scrape off that it can be less expensive to destroy the kiln and build a new one than to try to remove the crud. The industry needed a way to clean kilns in a quick and practical manner. The problem is to separate something inside from something outside.

The aluminum industry discovered that the food industry had to have a very reliable and cost-effective way of separating nuts from shells or bell peppers from seeds. Simply, the food industry puts the nuts or peppers into a pressure chamber and slowly increases the pressure, then instantaneously releases it. The sudden change in pressure causes the shell to explode and effectively release the nuts or seeds inside. Then a simple filtering/screening process can extract one component from the other.

Now the aluminum industry, and many other smelting or furnace-utilizing industries, uses kilns and furnaces designed with pressure systems and trap doors for cleaning. The kilns are pressurized then suddenly released. The sudden pressure change instantly cracks and separates the crud from the vessel walls and the trap door dumps out the waste.

Some people perceive the TRIZ method to be overly structured and cumbersome. In my experience, once the method is understood and ingrained, it becomes almost automatic and fairly simple to use with as much or as little formality as desired. Try it.

The other successful solution I know is to collaborate with a technology investigation or research and development group. I confess that I have only engaged one such group, PCDworks, the cofounder of which contributes frequently to Product Design and Development, He is Mike Rainone.

There are groups, such as PCDworks, that make it a habit and a profession to research and investigate new technologies and developments and look for ways to use them to solve a wide variety of problems. When we have an idea, but don’t know how to find the technology or methods, or even if technologies or methods exist, to enable our idea, these technology investigation specialists can often make the connections for us.

Another benefit of the technology investigation and innovation think tanks or service groups is that they are accustomed to helping others solve impossible challenges. Therefore, they know how to operate quickly and efficiently to help us, and they are well versed in patent protection and are prepared to meet our needs for patent protection and proprietary information.

These groups know what organizations are investigating what technologies and methods, and how other industries or solutions might be adapted to solve our specific challenges. In short, they know how to help us find the European bell crafters to make good on our gunpowder.

To find such groups, look for them in the innovation trade publications, science publications, or search for them on-line with keywords such as “ideation,” “technology investigation,” “technology research,” or “research and development.” Just be sure that the group you engage genuinely has the skills to marry ideas with technologies and not just an innovation process, or a science laboratory with a narrow focus of research, or basic engineering services for hire. Ask for examples and references.

For as long as mankind has been inventing, the challenge of matching our ideas to skills, materials, or technologies to make them possible has been a limiting factor to achieving our innovative visions. Today we have methods like TRIZ to help us search for viable solutions in other venues and specialists that keep the pulse of technology development. We also have the Internet to help us locate and communicate with those solution providers and the technologies we need.

If you are struggling to enable your breakthrough ideas, ask yourself whether a method to break out of the box or a specialist service might help you find solutions faster than you can create them. Chances are high that somewhere out there, there is a better way, if you can just connect with it.

Stay wise, friends.

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