Strangely, electronics design engineers can study at university for up to five years without a single lesson on creative design.
A flaw in teaching applies to many science and engineering courses: Students are taught how to implement other peoples ideas, but not how to create their own ideas! This distinction may seem trivial, however the situation needs to change because it is so important to be first to market. There is now a growing demand for engineers who can create original product ideas, and the reason is becoming clear. Engineers are at the forefront of technology, so they are perfectly placed to imagine new outcomes, new possibilities, new markets, and ultimately new products. Teach engineers creativity, and they will have both the ideas to change the world, and the skills to make them reality.
Even 20 minutes creative-thinking training can make a difference.
Ideas are essential for innovation, and for engineers. There is a constant need for new solutions to everyday problems. At the leading edge of technology there are no textbook solutions. It’s an engineering necessity to know “How to Invent”
Like engineering, creating ideas is a skill that can be learned and improved over time. And while many engineers may not use formal techniques, such techniques offer the ability to produce ideas on demand.
The following is written for electronic design engineers. It can be used to create highly original circuit designs, and is an excellent tool in patent generation and circumvention.
Ideas are the starting point of invention. To turn an idea into an invention requires a wide range of technical skills. Engineers excel in the area of design implementation. However the creation of the idea is a neglected skill. Perhaps this is because idea-creation is believed to be a natural skill. To some extent this may be true; however idea creation skills can be learned to a very high level. Idea skills supplement traditional engineering skills. Crucially, idea skills enable engineers to produce ideas on demand.
To demonstrate the techniques in action, an example of a circuit design will be used. Before you read how to do it, here is a challenge. Try and compete with the method. Test how good you are before you read the explanation. First, I will state the problem, and you try and solve it using normal methods. Next apply the technique, and see if you get any more solutions. You won’t have learned any more about electronics, but you can expect to generate more electronic solutions!
So here’s the problem: Invent a new sine-wave rectifier?
In other words: replace the standard diode bridge rectifier that has endured since 1897 (Graetz).
Tested yourself? Want to know if you can do better?
UK IDEA has broken idea generation into a four steps, easily remembered by the IDEA acronym:
Simply recall the word IDEA, and you will be able to create new ideas. Even the shape of the letters will help you remember how to do it.
The UK IDEA trademark logo, is a unique visual mnemonic to help you remember how to generate ideas (also hopefully you will remember where you learned it).
Recall the mnemonic and, as the following explains, apply each IDEA step. For instant results use the letters IDA, and for long term improvement concentrate on EA.
Increase is a divergent process, and the logo represents a divergent lens.
First you will automatically create a starting idea. Next you will generate a large number of raw ideas based on that single idea. The single idea is know as a “point of stimulation” (or initial conditions if you prefer).
The prime object of “Increase” is to increase your number of ideas to a large number from just one point of stimulation. More means better, so don’t judge the quality of ideas, and don’t throw any ideas away. Even if you know the idea is unworkable, or unoriginal, keep it
Let’s go straight to our example...
How can we invent a new sine-wave rectifier?
To create the point of stimulation for new rectifier ideas, we will use a process called “Random Stimulation” (one of many possible techniques).
Random Stimulation works by accessing your existing knowledge of electronics.
First choose a word at random from a dictionary. This word will be the point of stimulation. Don’t choose a word that you think will help: make sure it’s a random selection. The word should be a noun, and in this example I’m using the word “petrol” (also known as “gasoline”).
Secondly write down everything you know about, or associate with, the chosen word. Write this as a list of bullet points. For petrol this could be:
For brevity the example list is short; however it is important to stretch yourself to produce a long list. Give yourself a target of twenty items.
Thirdly associate each item on your list with the idea-objective (in this case a full wave rectifier). This is when you produce the real ideas. You need to hold two images simultaneously in your mind: the list word, and the idea-objective. Once you have both in your mind, try and find commonalities or associations between the two. What properties do “Taxed” and “rectified sine wave” have in common? When you have an answer, note it down. The notes can be drawings or word descriptions. Aim to produce an idea for every word on your list.
To continue with the example, consider the first word “taxed”. Taxed may suggest additional cost. Mentally mapping cost onto the objective gives an association with component cost. Remembering that cost reduces with increasing quantity suggests more components: more bridge rectifiers. Perhaps two bridge rectifiers in parallel, which doubles the quantity, and halves the current carrying requirement (what about three in parallel?). Don’t develop the idea too far at this stage, just draw or write the idea down. There is no definitive answer, and two people can easily produce different results.
After recording the idea, move on to the next word of your list and repeat the process of associating it with the objective. Eventually you will have one idea for each word in your list, in this case seven ideas, but normally a minimum of 20. The four circuit diagrams shown above were directly derived from the words Taxed, Pump, Multigrade, and Spilled. Having generated a list of ideas, the next thing is to check if they are any good.
Decrease is a convergent process.
“Decrease” your number of ideas by eliminating those that are not suitable. To eliminate effectively you need a goal or criteria to judge against. Your goal could be cost reduction, power consumption, reliability, or a combination of many factors.
This may seem a simple, and not worthy of making into a formal task. However the ability to skilfully decrease your idea list is extremely important for success. You need to be able to pick winners, and reject the least likely candidates. Your idea list won’t all be original, and may already be patented or published. Some ideas won’t be workable. Occasionally however you will hit gold, and you need to recognise it when you do.
Decreasing requires your engineering skills and experience. It may be necessary to perform some calculations, check textbooks, refer to patent libraries, or consult your colleagues (asking people really can help, but don’t compromise potential patents). You can build a league table, or scorecard of key parameters. If you are part of a team, it may be necessary to organise a consensus vote.
When one idea is ultimately chosen, it moves on to be fully developed into a working circuit. Note: It is possible that during this stage you will reject all of your ideas. In this case you can start the “increasing” process again by using a different random word. Personally I find this option is rarely necessary, and it is better to spend effort in generating an idea for every one of your list of 20 words (sometimes this is a real challenge). Using the two steps of Increasing and Decreasing is a way of improving idea creativity instantly. There are also strategies for improving creativity long-term, namely Educate and Analyse.
Education is used to improve the effectiveness of the first two techniques of “Increase” and “Decrease”.
Educate is somewhat self explanatory. The question is: “what knowledge should be acquired”? The first priority for knowledge expansion is in your specialist subject. There are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that, as an expert, you will be working at the leading edge, and so your ideas are less likely to have been thought of before. Another reason is that your judgement and ability to “decrease” will improve as you gain greater insight (you can quickly recognise something that already exists, and so save time on research). You might already be an expert in electronics. The next priority for knowledge expansion must be outside your specialist area. This could be in a totally unrelated subject, such as a hobby. Your objective is to build knowledge diversity. Diversity increases you chances of cross fertilising ideas onto your specialist subject. Diverse experience leads to higher quantity and quality of ideas.
Analytical skills complement creative skills
Analysis is fortunately very natural for most engineers. It is important however that analysis does not interfere with the creative process. To avoid interfering, use analysis immediately before and immediately after the Increase stage. Analysis is used before, to guide your efforts in the best direction. Analysis is used after as part of the Decrease process. For example consider a circuit board that is experiencing many field failures. Inspection of failing boards shows multiple failure modes. Detailed analysis of these modes shows the majority of failures are due to the power supply circuit. Analysis may then lead you to consider alternative bridge-rectifier designs. In other words this analysis could have been used to reach the starting point of the example used above for “Increase” and “Decrease”. Statistical Tools are typically used by six-sigma practitioners to identify where the most important areas are to concentrate process improvement efforts. Another example of analysis applies to market research; in this area, analysis of market trends will highlight where new ideas are needed for product innovation. So analysis gets you to a starting point for idea creation, and helps you select the best of the ideas that you have generated. Hopefully the above gives some indication of how to start original product design. In reality it normally takes a few days training to explain all of the IDEA concepts in detail.