Saturday, October 20, 2007

Learn From Professor Risk

Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2007 by Collin Levy
Interview with Sam Zell contains a number of important lessons and is worth reading.

1) How do you know when to sell?
First, evaluate the value of something you have or might acquire. Referring to his decision in February, to sell Equity Office Properties to Blackstone for $39 billion in cash,"Somebody made an offer that was wide ( far higher) than my own valuation. So I'm looking in the mirror, and any day you don't sell, you buy, and I wasn't willing to buy at the price they were willing to pay, so I sold it."
2) Understand and evaluate risk as a "professional opportunist"
"..people take all kinds of risk all the time and don't know it." Make risk-assessment a part of everything that you do. Estimate the value of the potential gain and of the cost of being wrong.
3) Have your own perception of value versus risk.
Do a professional analysis, and always be willing to proceed, even if no one else agrees with you.
4) Standing still has risks.
Realize that NOT taking an action also has risks.

Lesson: Stay focused and consider "risk versus rewards" in a professional manner, rather than just making decisions based on "intuition" or vague "gut feelings." Then- Have the courage of your convictions.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Be OPEN to New Ideas and Things You Don't Understand

Innovation requires that we remain open to ideas that are new, unfamiliar and may even seem impossible. So.. last week, in order to drive home this important point, I brought 2 thin metal rods, bent into "L-shape" to school. I asked my class of freshmen in PDI Studio #1 at RPI, how many thought that I could use these rods to "find water underground". Some were skeptical, but to their credit, a number thought it possible. So.. I led the class outside to the football field.

As I walked slowly with the rods held loosely and pointed straight ahead, they rotated. I was standing over an underground water pipe and the rods were now aligned parallel to the pipe. Later in the week, Bob Lobdell and his son brought their excavator to my nursery. We need lots of water to irrigate the plants we grow, and this Fall has been very dry- Our stream is dry and our pond is down 5 feet. So I wanted to find a reserve source of water.

I used to rods to map out underground water. I found a main vein, with several lateral veins feeding it. That's were I asked Bob to start digging. And guess what? 15 feet down, we found water. It tested out at 35 gallons per minute, much different than the well at our house, 300 feet away, that is drilled to more than 500 feet deep and produces less than 1 gallon per minute.

So how do the rods work? I don't know. I do know that:
1) They do work. I have used them to find buried water lines and septic.
2) If I touch my 2 hands together while searching, the rods do not move.
So.. some sort of electric/ magnetic field is generated by water underground.

Lesson: Don't dismiss what you do not understand. Be open to ideas that are new to you. You just might hit something big! One student said, "too bad it's not OIL!"

Monday, April 2, 2007

Fashion Secret: A Secret for all Designers and Innovators

WSJ April 2, 2007 by Stephanie Kang

Top fashion designers often look to the past in order to find inspiration for new designs. New York fashion designer Zac Posen collects antique clothing and studies fashion history. He says, “(creating new) fashion is often about having a conversation with the past.”

Another designer, Gabrielle Greiss, checks out details such as hardware used on buttons and the stitching on a pocket, for inspiration. But how can we tell if a design will be successful? Ms. Greiss says, in order to tell if a design is right, “I’ll wear it out on the street and see if I get any reaction. Then we will know.”

Two important lessons for all of us:

1) Look to the past for inspiration and for old designs that can be updated with new technology and incorporated in new products.

2) To evaluate an idea, particularly one that is radical, give a quick version to the users, let then use it and see their reaction. They are the final judges.

Olympus Lifetime of Educational Innovation Award

I was thrilled and honored to receive the 2007 Olympus Lifetime of Educational Innovation Award on March 22 at the NCIIA Annual Conference in Tampa.

This award was recognition of the accomplishments of the team at RPI- administration, faculty and most important, our great students.

Many thanks to Olympus and NCIIA ( for their important support in the effort to educate our students with the new skill sets needed to make the world a better place.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Chutzpa- We Need it to Innovate!

What does it take in order to create something radically different and innovative? Chutzpa!
Gall, brazen nerve, incredible guts. The New Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten

Chester Carlson had it big time. He built a working model of his new copier and spent years knocking on doors and being rejected by all the leading companies in the office equipment field. He was told that his invention was not needed!...

But he didn't give up.. and finally he met another person with chutzpa, Joseph C. Wilson, the head of Haloid Company, a small company in Rochester, NY, who "took a chance" on this radical new device. The company changed its name to Xerox.

Just to show you how little chutzpa I had in 1959...
I was working in the Product Design Department at Polaroid. One day, I walked past Sid Whittier's drawing board. Sid was a bright eyed 60 something and a look a like for Ernest Hemmingway. He said, "Swersey, you seem like a bright young man. Cheap copies. If you could design a machine to make cheap copies, you would really have something."

My brilliant response-
"Sid, whenever I need copies I can put carbon paper into the typewriter. And in the rare instance when I need to copy something that already exists, I can use the Kodak wet copier on the first floor." Well, I used that wet copier only once, and I still have stains on my hands.

How did Sid have the vision to see what was needed and how did he have the nerve to ask for it?
Who else has chutzpa? And how can we develop it in ourselves and others? Let us know.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Engineers and Business- ROI

Return on Investment- ROI
An idea needs to satisfy many different criteria in order to be successful. ROI is one criterion or metric that generally must be considered. ROI is the annual rate of return that results from an investment, expressed as a percentage. For example, if you invest $1,000 in a project that results in an annual saving of $50, then the ROI is $50/1,000 or 5%.

There are always many different alternative solutions to a problem. For each, we need to estimate the projected ROI. "Back of the envelope" order of magnitude estimates are often good enough. Start by making some assumptions. You can always refine your analysis, before making a final decision.

Example from class-
Students proposed a design for a means to capture and recyle water.
* How many liters of water will be saved in one year?
* What is the value/ cost per liter of water?
* What is the total value/ cost of the water saved?
* How much will it cost to install the new system?
ROI= $Saved/$Total cost

In a situation where water is inexpensive this idea will probably be hard to justify economically. But if water is scare (like in a space ship) recycling certainly makes economic sense.

Strategy for Improving ROI-
* Look beyond water. Find a situation where the value of what is being "wasted" is high relative to the cost of the system required to do the recovery.
* Design a system that is far less expensive
* Include cost to the environment and to health and include these costs in your calculations.

"Problem Finding", Vision and Commitment

Times have changed. Global competition is such that engineers no longer have the luxury to wait to be told what to do. Instead we must train our students to find unrecognized problems / needs, understand the needs fully and then state their VISION of what could be.

Here are some suggestions for doing this-
1- Identifying, defining and understanding the problem is critical to success of the design.
That means that the students need to understand the state of the art (SOTA).
* Research is key. What is life like for the user? Why? What has already been done?
* Who are the stakeholders? Explain.
* Compose a clear problem statement of the need/ opportunity for improvements.
* Perform Reverse Engineering analysis of what exists.
* Understand how existing devices / solutions work, how built, what they cost

2- Criticize what Exists-
* What are the assumptions?
* What are the compromises?
* What would be ideal?
Use metrics in the evaluation and criticism.. rather than vague terms like.. large, heavy,.. hard to use,..expensive..
* Criticize what exists in a structured manner, using a template...
Start with functional analysis of the sub-system.
Functions- that must be provided by the sub-system. Functional analysis is really important.. functions are defined as verb-nouns.. Arrange the functions in diagram form.. starting with top functions and branching to show the sub-functions needed to provide the function.

Template for criticizing looks something like:
1- Physical characteristics
2- Performance
3- Cost- Affordability for the user
4- Interface with-
* user
* The environment
5- Safety
6- Innovation
7- ??

3- Create a Vision of What is Needed and what you will do, BEFORE you know how to do it or even if it is possible.
"Two billion people in the developing world do not have .... This means that their lives are.... and.... The lives of everyone in the world are impacted by this because.... Therefore, (our vision) we are comittted to create a ... The result will be .... And the BENEFITS will be....
We don't know how we are going to do this, but we will do it within the next .... months."

Constraints Make it Easier to be Innovative

Think about it. It may be counter-intuitive, but putting constraints on a problem can actually help us create innovative new concepts. I believe that it was Stephen Sondheim who said something like, " If you ask me to write a song about anything, I would have a hard time getting started. But if you ask me to write a song about a cowboy whose girl just left him, his dog died and his red pickup truck broke down, I could do that."

The same thing applies when we ask students to think of an idea for a new product. We can make it easier for our students and everyone, if we put constraints on the assignment. For example here are constraints that we gave the students recently when we asked them to design a new product-
  • Must be human powered and work without electricity
  • Must be affordable by people who live on $2.00 per day
  • Must address an important need in people's lives, not just a want.
  • Must be sustainable.
Note- If the design meets these constraints, then everyone in the world could use the product.

Terry Teachout wrote about the importance of constraints when trying to creat unique works, in the Wall Street Journal on October 28, 2006, A Challenge to Martin Scorsese

... all great art is ruthlessly selective. It imposes order on the natural world. That's why sonnets have 14 lines and string quartets are played by four musicians. An art without rules is nothing more than a willful, inchoate stew of random impulses. As Igor Stravinsky put it: "Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit."

Try imposing meaningful constraints at the start of your next attempt to achieve an innovative new design.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Patents- They Work. How to Get Started

Patents are one of the most important keys to successful technological innovation. They work and can provide you and your company with ability to prevent others from making or selling your designs for many years.

For inventors-

  • Learn to protect your work so that you can either license your patents or start a company to produce your concepts.
  • Become a leader and improve your career with your employer.

Steps to Take to Prepare Your Patents-

Step 1- Conduct a patent search..

Expect to find lots of related patents. Your job is to analyze the existing patents and find "holes" in what is covered.

  • Google patents is best place to start. But you can also use
  • Enter your search words for a quick or advanced search
  • Look at the titles of the results and open the ones that look most closely related.
  • Check off which patents have the functions that your design provides

Be sure to keep track of everything that you do- record all your search terms and search results, write them down in your notebook and save/print results. List patent number, date, title and summarize what it covers.

Step 2- Draft Your Own Patent Application-

You, as the inventor, are the person best suited to write the initial draft of your application. Then have it reviewed by a patent attorney. Do it yourself plus help from a great patent attorney, will save you money and I believe can result in a stronger patent.

  • Draft a patent application that can be filed, first as a Provisional Patent Application and then as a full patent application, complete with claims.
  • Follow the format of a typical patent.
  • “In the past it has been know that… could be used to… However, these devices do not …., …., …. Therefore the objectives of this design are to….,….,…”
  • Description of your design- Provide sufficient details so that “someone skilled in the art could replicate your design”. Describe your design and refer to clear diagrams (flow, system block, operation) and drawings.
  • Claims- This is the hardest part. Get help from your attorney. Start with independent claims, “a means to provide…” Then add dependent claims (the design in claim x above where the means is….). You can also add Method Claims- “What is claimed is a method of doing…. that includes- a means of…., means of…. and…”
  • Functions are key- Verb-nouns used to describe what your design does.
  • Construct a table to summarize and compare patents you found versus your design
    List the functions that your design provides down the first column.
    List related patents in columns to the right of your patent and check off the functions that are provided by each patent.
  • Unique combinations of functions that are not covered by any existing patent (and do not exist in a design that is already known) may be patentable.. as long as they are "useful and not obvious to someone skilled in the art."
Good luck.

Identify and Strive for the Ideal- Learn from Edwin Land

I had an interesting discussion with students in my IED/ sophomore design class yesterday.
I urged them to determine what would be ideal for the user and then commit to doing that, without knowing how they would do it, or even if it was possible.
I said that this was the time and place to develop the courage to take risks... and if they followed all the right steps, worked dilligently and documented their work, they would receive a good grade, even if they failed to achieve the ideal.

The students were working on the design of an inexpensive means to purify water for people in the developing world. I asked, "What functions are missing in existing designs? Look at your Brita filter. What is the assumption... Water that comes out of the filter is safe to drink."

But there is no means to actually verify this. How about designing a device that-
1) Indicates that the water is safe
2) Does not allow water to come out unless it is safe.
Isn't this what is really needed?

My first engineering job was at Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, MA. Dr. Edwin H. Land, the brilliant leader of Polaroid, insisted on aiming for the ideal solution, even though to many of us, that seemed to be impossible. I left Polaroid in 1960, but several years later, when the SX-70 came out, I was amazed to see that it did things that had never been done before. Polaroid engineers found that Land was right and that they could achieve the ideal, even though it was impossible.

Think of all the good that we could do for people in need, if we all learned Dr. Land's lesson.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head (my favorite book on creativity), cautions us not to fall in love with our first idea. Why not?
  • Generally, if you have thought of the idea rather quickly, others have had the same idea. So, instead of competing with lots of others, find an idea that is largely unrecognized.
  • In order for an idea to become a product, millions or even billions of dolllars and many weeks/ years of hard work are needed for design, inventory, documentation, testing, certification, training, advertising, etc.. so..
By spending considerably more time and effort during the early design stages of the product, and refining and revising the idea to provide users with much greater value, we increase the chances for success.
Yet, this is perhaps the most difficult step in the process of creating something new.

Designers think: "Why wouldn't someone want my great new idea?"
To answer this we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the users and consider the needs of all of the stakeholders.
  • What are the other alternatives and how do they compare to this idea?
  • Is this idea FAR better in all respects than what exists?
  • If the design has not gone through at least 3 iterations, it probably is NOT ready for release.
The First Iteration
  • Generate many alternative ideas to address the need
    • Use quick sketches, make quick rough models
Example: Sketch 20 ways to crush a can. Spend 10 minutes. Use "stick-figures".

The Second Iteration
Is this the "right" problem/need?
  • How can the same basic idea be applied to a different problem/need that is unrecognized and is a better opportunity?
The Third Iteration
How can I make the concept much "better"?
  • Add functions and Make it "smart" so that it is patentable
  • Produce and sell it in a different way
  • Make it "sustainable"
  • Put early models in the hands of users and WATCH how they use it- then "fix it"