The Future Of Innovation Is About Controlling Innovation

Ms Claudia Eckert

The discussion of innovation, in particular in the business community, is about fostering as much innovation as possible and generating an environment in which everybody can be as innovative as possible. However, in many contexts this is not always appropriate, in particular in the design of complex engineering products. Yes, these products need to be innovative: innovation is often driven by stringent new legislation and by customers demands which are sensitive to a change business climate. For example diesel engines need to comply with emission legislation; aircraft need to meet noise requirements. To design such products, innovation needs to be designed into the product from the beginning. Designers need to develop a number of possible ways in which they can meet their requirements and select the best one, which is then designed in detail. The best design is often the one that allows them to meet customer’s needs with the minimum amount of risk. Customers don’t like to be guinea pigs. This is often the design that is closest to an existing design and thus the one that can make use of tried and tested components and solution principles. This puts a premium on incremental design, where innovation in contained within a few subsystems.

Our detailed research on engineering change, however, has shown that this is far from easy to achieve. One reason is that designers would sometimes rather design a new part, than put the effort into finding a possible existing design or adapting a similar one. Another, which is less obvious, is unexpected change propagation, ie. when a (planned) change to one part of a system leads to knock-on changes to other parts of the system – a phenomenon familiar to everybody who has redecorated a room and found themselves changing one bit after the other until everything look nice together again. Change can propagate through straightforward geometric relations, but also through functional and behavioural links. For example a component getting significantly hotter will increase its size, which might therefore cause unexpected vibrations when the component touches an adjacent component it does not normally touch; in consequence the affected component itself might require changing. However, propagating changes like this is often not possible when components could be affected that are frozen due to long lead times. This is the point when innovation often occurs in engineering companies – late in the design process, under great pressure, inventing ways to avoid making changes to other parts of the design. As engineers in an automotive company have commented during interviews on design process planning, their innovation is mainly “emergency innovation”. However, if these new solutions prove successful they become part of future designs. One important way to avoid the need for unexpected late innovation is by attempting to predict and avoid changes early in the design process; for example, by using change prediction that, by employing design for flexibility approaches, or making use of product platforms

In complex engineering domains the challenge is fostering innovation where innovation is needed and avoiding newness where it is not required. The future survival of many engineering companies will depend on getting that balance right.

Article © 2009 Ms Claudia Eckert. All rights reserved.

about the author...

Ms Claudia Eckert

Ms Claudia Eckert

affiliation:   The Open University; Design Group; Ddem,

position:  Senior Lecturer

country:  United Kingdom

area of interest:  Design Research, Engineering Change

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