Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Do You Teach Innovation?

Today's guest post is from Scott Harmon, Z Corp's Vice President of Business Development.

An earlier blog asking the question, “Can you teach innovation?” received a large number of responses on this and many LinkedIn forums. Many of them quite interesting. Generally, responses were quite diverse with much of the discussion paralleling the more general debate about human behavior summed up as ‘nature vs. nurture,’ or as Curt Moreno mentioned, ‘entity vs. incremental.’

One of the interesting things about teaching innovation is that innovation is hardly a single skill. In responding to the previous post, Emmanuel Garcia made the distinction between ingenuity / creativity and implementation. Paul Jordan reminded readers about the importance of gumption. Surely, Edison would have agreed mightily with the role of gumption. Innovation is clearly all of these things and more.

My personal belief is that some people possess more or less of the various capabilities required to be great innovators. However, I also believe pretty strongly that these innate capabilities can be improved with practice. Interestingly, most of the respondents to the last posting felt like current primary and secondary schools weren’t doing a terribly good job of teaching these skills. (Interesting article here on that subject.). A few respondents mentioned various resources and books on the subject.

That got me thinking. I’d personally love to know more about how people teach and learn the skills required to be great innovators. I’m not so interested in the curriculum. Curriculum is important, and it’s almost certainly part of the problem. I’m more interested in your experiences. How did you learn to innovate? If you’re a teacher, what do you find most effective for teaching kids to innovate?

I’ll share a quick story. I was an electrical engineer in college and was pretty good at math and science my whole life. I took an introduction to electrical engineering course as a sophomore, and I remember explicitly one of the early tests. I don’t remember the exact question, but I do remember being 100% convinced that it was unsolvable. It had no answer that could be derived from the formulas and methods we had been taught. I approached the professor, with an air of indignation, thinking the question must be wrong. He just smiled and said, “Some questions don’t have an answer,” obviously recognizing that is just the beginning, but it’s an important one.

So what are your favorite stories about learning innovation? Are there any resources you have found to be especially valuable?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How Could You Get to Market 40% Faster?

This week’s guest blog is from Scott Harmon, Z Corp’s VP of Business Development.

Time to market has long been one of the key differentiators between successful product development efforts and unsuccessful ones. The term ‘First Mover Advantage,’ refers to the additional profits enjoyed by the company that gets to market first. In the product design world, the first mover gets more shelf space, wider distribution, more PR, etc. All that adds up to more customers and more profit.

The importance of the First Mover Advantage is one of the reasons it so interesting to listen to the recent webcast with Lund International. Based in Lawrenceville, Ga., USA, Lund makes and sells durable, functional aftermarket accessories such as window vents, pickup cargo covers, tool boxes and premium floor protection. Lund accessories fit every type of vehicle – both cars and trucks – and every type of driver.

They supply parts to automotive OEM’s and to distributors and retailers in the automotive market. As you probably know, the automotive industry is one of the most intense, design-centric industries on the planet. (It has also been around for a while, as I was recently reminded during a Father’s Day trip to the Collings Foundation.)

So if you’re in a very competitive industry, with years and years of best practice established, how on earth could you improve product development to get a 40% improvement in time to market?

Well, for Lund International, as for almost all automotive suppliers, capturing the ‘as built environment’ is the first step in the design process. Automotive components inevitably rely on an accurate understanding of the rest of the system. The faster and more accurately you understand the as built environment, the faster you will get to market.

Brent Rose and Jonathan Shroyer were kind enough to share their experiences using the ZScanner to quickly and accurately capture the as built environment. You should listen to their webcast. They talk about their existing processes, assessment of the product vs. other technologies, and how they achieved substantial savings in time and money using this technology with fewer design iterations. It’s really an excellent webcast put on by a couple of pros.

It just goes to show, even in a mature industry, opportunities for substantial improvement exist. Have you thought about how your company could get to market 40% faster than they do today?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are 2D Product Comparison Grids Useful for 3D Printers?

This week’s guest blog is by Julie Reece, Z Corp’s Director of Marketing Communications.

I am not a fan of product comparison grids. I understand that in theory they are meant to make it easy for purchase decision makers to compare competitive products and services in what their authors proclaim to be fair comparisons. You know the kind I’m talking about…they provide a short list of capabilities or criteria down the left column of the grid and various competitive products/services across the top row, and use check marks or some other type of indicator within each box to indicate whether or not that product or vendor offers each listed capability. They’re everywhere – across industries and markets. I remember first seeing such a grid early in my career at a very large software development company, and even used them myself at the time in my marketing role at that company. I haven’t used one since. Recently I've seen product comparison grids authored from reputable, third-party industry organizations and 3D printer manufacturers.

So, why am I so anti-grid? Yes, I’ll admit they bring back vivid memories of my less-than-stellar performance studying charts in high school math class. But more importantly, the validity of the picture grids intend to paint is guided solely by their authors and therefore they inherently come with the author’s bias or, at the very least, assumptions about which criteria is important to include and exclude. And, grids don’t enable product evaluators to assign an importance weight or score to different purchase criteria given differing sets of needs.

For example, if the author comes from one of the competing companies included in the grid, he/she is going to list the criteria where they feel they ‘win’ and conveniently omit criteria where competitors win. Even worse, a chart I recently saw from another 3D printing company contained false information. But if it’s on a chart, it’s true, right? Not necessarily.

You might say, sometimes highly knowledgeable, objective and well-meaning third parties develop product comparison grids. But do they always know all of the important criteria and capabilities to include? One of the industry grids I saw did not include all of our relevant products for the topic, resulting in a slanted picture of the available product offerings. Another grid omitted a few key criteria that purchase decision makers in our industry consider.

Even if the industry-savvy authors include a complete list of evaluation criteria in their grids, how can purchase decision makers prioritize, or assign an importance score to, the criteria within those grids? They can’t. Take 3D printing for example. Every company and department application for 3D printing is unique. Criteria that might be critical to one company or department (things like build size, speed, color, surface finish, materials, printer cost, material cost, method of post-processing, type of material used, office-friendliness, and so on) might be completely insignificant to another. If you’re an educator, low cost of operation, build speed, throughput and safety might be your top priorities and you might be willing to do without color or a specific material property. If you’re a manufacturer of consumer goods, color, speed and low material cost might be your top priorities and you might not be concerned about material properties. If you need flexible, functional parts, then material properties will likely be your primary concern, and you might be willing to sacrifice low cost, color, build size, and so on. The point is there isn’t a nice, neat grid that can address your individual company and application needs.

Careful product evaluation isn’t always easy, but it is critical. So, when you see a 3D printer product comparison grid, be wary. Instead, I encourage you to schedule a personal appointment with representatives from each of the 3D printing companies. Describe your application needs to their representatives and listen to how their solutions can solve your application challenges and open new doors to success. Ask each representative to focus on how their solution can satisfy your application needs. See a demonstration. Talk to their customers. Do your homework. Perhaps create your own customized grid based on your needs. Then, and only then, can you begin to narrow your list of possible solutions and make an informed decision.

Related Resources:

Following are a few Z Corp-focused product and technology selector resources:

Interactive Product Selector  (enables you to identify your application needs and prioritize different criteria)
Webcast: How to Choose the Right Rapid Prototyping System (free, online)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What is OI and What is its Impact to 3D Printing?

That is a question I found myself asking as I listened to some of the thought leaders in the field at the recent 5th annual Open Innovation Conference in Philadelphia. I travelled there with an open mind about the definitions and possibilities. From prior experience and research, I had some preconceived notions about what I would hear and believed OI to be comprised of many components. To some, OI might have the same meaning as open source or open innovation, collaborating on challenging problems and sharing solutions with anyone interested in applying them. To others it might mean creating partnerships with suppliers or strategic links with research universities or complementary players in target markets. And to still others, OI could relate somehow to opening the internal innovation process to customers and non-customers through the “cloud” by means of crowd sourcing, mob sourcing, social media and a host of other means made possible by the rapid advancement of internet capabilities.

As the conference wound down and I reflected on what I had heard, I was pleased that my prediction was correct and that depending on who you talk to, OI has widely different meaning and application throughout industry today. For example Clorox, a multinational consumer cleaning-product company, recognizes the need for creating value upstream, downstream, and through partnership. They take a win-balance approach meaning that, to be successful there must be value for everyone contributing to innovation. Upstream, suppliers are included in the Clorox development process and incentivized to actively contribute. Downstream, they look to involve end users through the use of crowd sourcing and initiatives such as Clorox Connect, a website separate from their corporate site, where anyone can contribute to new product ideas. To National Instrument and Tektronix, OI was the foundation for a partnership between these two industry leaders with complementary technologies for the same markets. By opening up their innovation processes they were able to combine their core competencies into a single revolutionary product. Sealed Air put together a program to look specifically at creating value from unused IP through license or other means. During the research phase in most companies, concepts are dismissed because the technology developed doesn’t meet the target requirements. The work is often novel and valuable but doesn’t fit the company goals at that time. Allowing others to use it is a good way to recover research costs.

Open innovation in its many embodiments is clearly here to stay. The enabling technologies that unleash the power of OI are advancing faster than most companies can keep up with. The ones that stay close to the leading edge will see a competitive advantage. Those that don’t will have to work harder to catch up. In the 3D printing world, the power of OI can be seen in knowledge sharing across the web. Open source sites are advancing capability, awareness, and accessibility. New use occasions and markets are benefiting solely from the desire to advance technology through knowledge. The old adage that knowledge is power is as true today as ever. But, a shift seems to have occurred from the realization that the knowledge of many is exponentially more powerful and useful than knowledge closed off to but a few.

I’m curious how others perceive OI. Is it a threat to competition? What does it mean in your organization?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Fiberglass Layup: 3D Printed Functional Boat Hull and Ping Pong Paddle

I don’t usually write about applications in this blog, but I found this one interesting and would like to know if anyone can expand upon its use case. I’ve been doing new product development since the mid-80’s (where did the time go?) and I’ve seen firsthand just about every fabrication method available for just about any material or product.

One that I have some experience with is fiberglass (or other cloth and resin) layup. I have seen boat hulls being removed from their mold in the factory and I’ve done my fair share of repair work on my own boat. Scanning the large array of products on the market today, you can see examples of this method used in aftermarket automotive products, consumer products and many others. These materials can be laid into a mold and removed upon cure or laid directly on the part to form a composite (such as in repair work).

An example I’m familiar with in the composite category is the glassing of a wooden boat. This is a method of waterproofing and strengthening a wooden hull, deck, or structure by coating it in resin soaked glass cloth. The wetted out fiberglass becomes transparent and the natural wood is visible beneath. Wood boat purists might cringe, but for those looking for the look and feel of real wood with the low maintenance of fiberglass, this is a practical solution.

So I wasn’t totally surprised when a colleague here at Z Corp showed me the printed model of a boat he designed and built. I’ve seen pictures of the finished boat and it’s beautiful. What did surprise me was that he had fiberglassed the bottom of the printed model. Why? I have no idea. But it made a water-tight, tough, thin walled structure.

As with many fabrication techniques, material properties can be enhanced through some type of modification. Heat treatment of metals; adding fiberglass, talk or carbon to plastic; and laminating wood products, are all examples of this. 3D printed materials are no different. They can be enhanced using similar techniques.

A few years ago, I designed a ping pong paddle and 3D printed it on a Z Corp ZPrinter. I liked the design - the paddle was usable, but I considered it a prototype. When I saw the boat model, I decided to re-design the ping pong paddle, making it super thin and light, and adding a very thin layer of fiberglass to the outer surface. The result was better than I expected. This paddle is lighter than a store-bought paddle and just as tough.

Here’s the thing that surprised me the most. In all my years involved in new product development, I have only come across a few examples where a fiber-cloth and resin are used as part of a composite with the original shape still encased. So, my questions are: what other products are made this way? What materials are used and what is the final product? I am really curious to know what people are familiar with and doing in this area.