Dear colleagues

There are many examples of products and companies developed during poor economic times - venerable companies such as HP, FedEx, CNN and products such as the iPod. Adversity spurred the creators on. However it is very rare to have a Eureka moment in design (the one when Archimedes purportedly ran down the street naked hollering, "I have found it!” – Similar to Steve Job’s comment at the end of this note). But innovation is a key element in driving any business or economy upwards and outwards, particularly in hard times. As Eric Starkloff remarked sagely, “Lean innovation occurs when times are tight and your resources are very thin and you need three items: Doing more with less; proving it fast and using your business, technical and social networks to the extreme.”
 
 1. Do more with less. This requires using fewer engineering staff to achieve the same results. Perhaps by reducing your previous team of hardware designers, mechanical engineers and RF engineers to two electronic engineers and you. This does create significant hardship – the remaining few have to multitask and be multi-skilled or acquire new complex skills quickly. It may also require you to cobble bits of an existing design together, for example - not entirely optimum, but if it enables you to get a working system out there quickly then it’s brilliant.
 
2. Quick prototyping to prove the concept works. Once you can demonstrate a working prototype, your firm will be encouraged to support further work. This will require innovation – not only in your thinking, but also in your approach and in the tools you use. These may not reflect your ideal and may indeed compromise your standards; but if it enables you to get a demonstration product out quickly…...
 
3. Finally (and most importantly), I reckon it is something we as engineers and technicians don’t do enough of: Leverage and “work” our business, technical and social networks more. We like focusing on the technical side in the design and work. However, it is often the network that really builds value in very quickly. The ideal example is the iPod. It is a highly fashionable and clever engineering design, undoubtedly, but was created because of a network of linked-in hardware/software and content (the non-engineering bit) which was brought together brilliantly in such a way that the competitors were left gasping. Networks will also help you source the bits necessary to do item 1 above (“Do more with less”). This approach is cheaper and quicker than designing and building what is required yourself.

Other examples of engineering products built from networks must surely be the array of Microsoft products out there. Microsoft, with their software, have a great network with Intel’s hardware and firmware chips and an array (perhaps, reluctant?) of hardware and software partners producing interlocking products. They are all linked, but are being propelled along by the market, where the complete package is essential to the products’ success.
 
Another example of using networks and interlocking products must be the usual OEM story where a Gas Turbine manufacturer takes many of the components (PLC Control System/Vibration monitoring/SCADA system/mechanical components/electrical switchgear from a variety of partners) and provides a finished (but complex) product.
 
So my suggestions are;
 
* Actively build your business, technical and social networks. This seems a non-engineering thing to do particularly for shy engineers, but is essential to your career and your firm and indeed to your product.
* When you are designing anything and are looking to build enormous value think outside the box and use your network
* Think of building value as you would with Lego blocks. The more interlocking bits you can find which match an overall real need; the further you will be ahead of your competitors and the more resilient your product will be to change.
* Persist with your approach and networks.
 
I think this comment from Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, is so true particularly the last bit which has been italicised:
 
Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.

Thanks to Eric Starkloff of NI and Electronics News for your intriguing article from which I have gleaned my ideas.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve