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Innovation should be, and can be systematic. Here’s how.

heptr in sandMany people are very sceptical of the TRIZ philosophy that the solution to a problem of any industry is very unlikely to be found within the industry. Let me offer an explanation through a case study.

Take the case of helicopter designers battling with the problem of sand-laden winds in deserts that cause unacceptable damage to rotor blades. The common sense solution is to make the rotors so strong that damage by winds does no longer affect reliability, but that makes them too heavy. How to proceed from here?

Start with the 39X39 Contradiction matrix (CM) of TRIZ. For this case, that amazing jumble of 39 parameters and 40 Inventive Principles throws up the tea leaves to say ‘Principle number 3′. That one is about ‘Local Quality’ i.e. – try changing something in the immediate environment or structure from uniform to non uniform. This gets us into the desired mode of thinking in terms of changing something in the immediate environment or structure.. However, we still do not what that ‘something‘ needs to be.

In a way, we have the solution space, but not the solution. But at least, we now have a solution space! Instead of 360 degrees, we now have to explore only about 10 degrees.Great, isn’t it?

It is here we use biomimicry, or nature watch, to compliment TRIZ. The philosophy is the same – Someone, somewhere, has solved a similar problem. So, how does nature solve the problem of protecting hard surfaces against possible erosion through gritty sand particles?

Where should one look at examples for this? In a desert, of course, and not in helicopter-design labs. Who should we use in our search now? A biologist, not a helicopter designer.

scorpionUsing this lens, Dr Han Zhiwu of Jilin university found that nature has solved this problem for someone who faces a lot of it. They found that in the north American desert, the scorpion, Androctonus Australis, is able to withstand the onslaught of sand laden wind admirably. Dr Han Zhiwu’s team then went on to examine its skin surface closely and found that its exo-skelton is covered with dome shaped granules that are 10 microns high and between 25 and 80 microns across. Still experimenting, they placed samples of steel in a wind tunnel and fired grains of sand at them with compressed air. The steel samples were of different patterns, ranging from totally smooth to ones with grooves of different heights, widths and separations. They found that the pattern most resembling scorpion armour proved best able to withstand the sand assault.

graphComputer simulations showed that the granules disturb the air flow near the skelton’s surface in ways that significantly reduce the erosion rate.

Now the solution space is yielding way to a specific solution. It seems that it lies in changing the local quality of the rotor blade from uniform to non-uniform,by making grooves in it similar to those found on exo-skelton of Androctonus Australis.

A complete solution, arrived at by working on the principle that someone, somewhere has solved your problem admirably. That ‘someone’ is very unlikely to be from your industry, otherwise you would have found it mentioned in the several industry literature you keep reading 24/7. To get to the right solution space, you start by the 39X39 CM of TRIZ and then move on to other support systems. You might have also noticed that the thought process in this case has, all along, been systematic and logical. No closing your eyes and visualizing, no mind mapping, no ‘Follow Steve Jobs’.

TRIZ, with its complimentary systems can yield results to any problem and expose opportunities in any industry or domain. There is no department of a modern organisation – HR, finance, operations, R&D, sales – that will not benefit from it.This is so because we use not just the database of TRIZ, but a complete system of thinking.

It is a challenge. Would you like to take it up? 

 

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