Systematizing innovation

Bill Hessler of Equipois describes multiple cases of innovative problem solving using structured methods.

Interview conducted by Vinod Baya and Bo Parker
Photo: Bill Hessler

Bill Hessler is a senior product development engineer who has used innovation techniques throughout his career, spanning four different industrial and medical manufacturing design companies. He has four US patents filed and more than 12 pending approval. His main innovation tools are the basic TRIZ principles and Invention Machine Goldfire software.

In this interview, Bill Hessler shares his experience of using a structured innovation method supported by semantic knowledge search capabilities to solve problems in innovation processes.


PwC: Bill, at several different companies, you’ve had a series of innovation experiences that share a common theme—using structured innovation methods to identify unusual solutions to vexing design problems. Can you describe a couple of them?

BH: I’m a project engineer. I have worked in industry for 20 years, and my first job was with Ingersoll Rand. I was a trainer, with engineers and designers. We made primarily impact wrenches and screwdrivers for Ingersoll Rand Power Tools. One day marketing came to engineering and said, “I want to see the next-generation power tool.” We went off with probably 20 or so engineers to figure it out. Some guys had more than 30 years of experience with only power tools, so they were born and raised in power tools, so to speak, right out of engineering school.

One of the issues being addressed at Ingersoll Rand was customers thinking that a car wheel’s lug nut was tight when it really wasn’t. The wheel then either loosened or fell off, and that was a very bad thing. Our marketing department had that problem in the back of their minds, but in addition they wanted to come up with the next-generation power tool. The engineers that had 20 or 30 years of experience thought they knew exactly what this power tool would look like. It was going to be quick, fast, and lightweight, made out of plastics and composites. It was going to be sexy looking and sleek. It was going to look like a stun gun from Star Trek or Star Wars.

We were just starting to use structured innovation methods, so the innovation instructor said, “Let’s build a function model for a power tool,” which is a key starting point in the structured approach. We built this function model of a power tool with all the components in a power tool, and we generically defined how each component is related to other components. We noticed that the function model was consistently pointing to two key areas: the air motor and the tightening mechanism.

One principle we had learned in the structured innovation approach is called elimination; another is combination. So we looked at the air motor and the mechanism and said, “What if we combine the two or eliminate the two?” Those are the two big problem areas. As a thought experiment, we asked, “What if we got rid of the air motor and the mechanism?” The experienced guys said, “There’s absolutely, positively no way you can build a power tool without an air motor and a mechanism. We’ve been making air motors and mechanisms for 60 years here. There’s no way you can do it.” But the thought experiment forced us to realize that if lug nuts are vibrating loose on the car tire, then we should use the same effect to vibrate the lug nuts on—rather than using the traditional air motor and mechanism. Everybody’s jaw hit the floor when we realized it was possible to do this.

Subsequently, the engineers came up with a high-frequency vibration tool that was electrically powered. It had no air motor or traditional mechanism. Instead it had a small motor and it vibrated. It actually vibrated the lug nuts on. Within a year, they had a product designed and tested and worked out, together with a couple of patents.

PwC: Interesting. So you structured the innovation problem from a conceptual point of view by asking yourselves, “What would a tool look like without the complex machinery that was core to the product but also the source of the problems?” Is there a broader principle here?

BH: When I refer to structured innovation methods, I’m really talking about the TRIZ principles.¹ TRIZ is an approach to innovation that came out of Russia more than six decades ago. You can use the TRIZ principles to solve thorny design problems and be more innovative because it frames all innovation as a search for existing solutions in different industries or contexts. In other words, your problem has already been solved and you just don’t know it. Many of these fall into the category TRIZ calls contradictions; that is, the inability to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t also create costs or problems in another part of the system.

For example, to add strength to a component, you can always make it bigger and fatter and thicker, but in aeronautical applications, that isn’t always an option. You want to make the component stronger but lighter. That’s a contradiction. Well, contradictions are one of the 40 TRIZ principles of structured innovation methods. How do you make something stronger but lighter? TRIZ suggests changing the material. Or changing the structure of the material.

Later in my career I took a position at an engineering company that is a supplier to electric utilities. When I first started there I was told, “Bill, you’re going to be on this gas turbine fuel nozzle project. Take this fuel nozzle that already exists that’s 25 inches long and shrink it down and fit it into the 15-inch fuel nozzle package for the smaller gas turbine.”

I said, “A chimpanzee with a photocopier could do that. What problem do you want me to solve?” And they said, “Well, you know…,” and I kept asking why. “Why do you want me to shrink this thing? We can go to CAD [computer-aided design] and shrink it immediately. What problem are you trying to solve?” They finally told me, “Well, these guys left the company and started their own company. They’re making fuel nozzles, and we’re losing market share.”

“Why are they doing that?” I asked. They said, “They’re making fuel nozzles with fewer parts.” I asked again, “Well, why are they doing that?” “Because they know welds are bad.” “Well, why are they doing that?” “Because every weld must be inspected.” “Why are they doing that?” “Because if they miss a bad weld, and a part goes loose, it takes the gas turbine out.”

Ah, so the real goal was to make parts better, cheaper, and faster, but we didn’t want to change the way we were making stuff. Engineering just wanted to take this design they already had and shrink it 20 percent.

Next I said, “The real function of this part is to enable customers to change fuels on the fly. They want to run one fuel in it today and another in it the next day or the next week. So we need to have a function on our fuel nozzle that’s easily tunable or changeable. And we want to make it with fewer parts, because that will mean fewer inspections of welds and lower costs. What approaches have you considered?”

 

"You want to get your employees to be more effective and to look at information that they might be overlooking. Intelligent software is the best, most efficient way to do it."

 
   

The chief engineer kept saying, “We keep our eye very closely on the competitor.” So I asked, “What about stuff at companies that aren’t competitors, like showerhead companies?” The chief engineer said, “Oh, well, showerheads. That’s water in a showerhead.” I replied, “Yeah, but when I’m standing in my shower and I turn on the water and I want the pulse or stream or raindrop experience, I flip a switch.” That’s exactly what we were trying to do in the gas turbine arena. Customers might want to run certain heavyweight fuels through it at first, because it’s cheaper, and next week they might have methane coming out of the ground, and they pump methane to it.

Another parallel we identified was the similarity between fuel nozzles and cake-decorating nozzles. As strange as that sounds, I brought that to a chief engineer, and I said, “Look at this cake-decorating nozzle and the way that it looks exactly like the fuel nozzle on an aircraft that fluctuates and can do the afterburner kind of thing you see on a flight deck.” He said, “Hey, that’s a pretty cool idea.” And I said, “Yeah, and it’s simple.” It’s in a cake-decorating piece of equipment. It’s a $1 part. We immediately said, “That’s a good idea.”

The outcome? What was a $10,000 fuel nozzle became a $5,000 nozzle. And everybody said, “Holy cow. That’s a pretty cool approach to innovation.” And I said, “These are just simple TRIZ principles at work.”

At some of the companies where I’ve worked, there was no true process for innovation. Incremental solutions to incremental problems get you only so far. More far-reaching solutions come through happenstance, such as times I’ve been in a toy store and I see a toy that reminds me of a problem I’m working on. That’s a great way to get ideas, but if you want to come up with 10 or 20 ideas or directions for your company, you need a structured approach that thoroughly scans the range of possible solutions from many different domains.

PwC: Is this a case of someone, you in particular, being incredibly brilliant or determined? How did you come up with these ideas from outside the specific discipline you were working in?

BH: Realistically, no single human could keep in their head all the innovative solutions to problems that humankind has invented. I’m talking about the details that are outlined in document repositories such as patent databases, proprietary lab notes, research publications, operating manuals, and the like across all industries. The secret is to use information technology together with the TRIZ principles. I started using the Invention Machine Goldfire, innovation software from Invention Machine, for exactly that purpose in my first job at Ingersoll Rand. And I continued using it through multiple roles there and other corporations, and I still use it today.

And here’s the thing. I was able to get 32 patent disclosures in four and a half years. That was with solar technologies—and I knew zero about solar when I started. It was the same when working on gas turbines. I knew zero about gas turbines when I started.

You want to get your employees to be more effective and to look at information that they might be overlooking. Intelligent software is the best, most efficient way to do it.

PwC: What’s the key enabler in software that contributes to structured innovation methods? How do you actually use it?

BH: In our work we did a lot of gas turbine testing and analysis. We stored great amounts of test result information, but we could never find it. It was either buried in a server or it was in a paper file somewhere.

When I first came on board, we had a digitizing program where we scanned 50-plus years of information and digitized it. Once it was digitized, I pointed Goldfire at it. The software reads every single document and puts them into what Invention Machine calls a Knowledge Base. You can do the same thing by pointing Goldfire at Web sites. So then when you say, “I want to know information about fuel nozzles,” it gets all the fuel nozzle information. Not only my information from inside the company, but it also gets every public domain piece of information about fuel nozzles. Now I have not just the smartest guy in the company sitting next to me, but I have everybody’s information at my beck and call.

PwC: So far this sounds like a standard search engine. Is there more to it?

BH: It’s much more precise and tuned to the problem-solving focus on innovation. Go into a Web search engine, type “how to switch power,” and see how many hits you get. And then do the same thing with “how to power a switch.” Those words are basically the same verbs and adjectives, but they’re in two different sentence structures. You’re going to get identical hits or pretty close to identical hits with standard search engines. With Goldfire, you’re going to get semantically relevant answers to those questions. And that blows people out of the water.

Then it’s going to turn around and ask you, “Do you mean a light switch? Do you mean this kind of switch? Do you mean that kind of switch?” And then when you write “how to switch power,” it asks, “Do you mean electrical power? Do you mean nuclear power? Do you mean conversion of mechanical energy to power?”

 

"The secret is to use information technology together with the TRIZ principles."

 
 

PwC: Is the only way to take advantage of structured innovation through the use of software?

BH: Both the principles and methods associated with TRIZ and the advanced technologies incorporated into Goldfire offer innovation process breakthroughs. If you’re not going to buy the software, then definitely start a TRIZ program and start training people. You can solve problems better, cheaper, and faster. If you want to solve them 10 times faster than that, add the software advantages from technology like Goldfire.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRIZ