e-Go flies!

October 30, 2013

This morning I went to Norfolk Gliding Club to see the first public flight of the e-Go light aircraft, the brainchild of Tony Bishop and Giotto Castelli.    I’ve known Tony for years and watched the project unfolding and it was great to see such a milestone.  It’s been fascinating to watch three elements of the project in action.

The project has attracted immense amounts of goodwill, hard work and engineering endeavoure-Go profile from so many people, many working simply for the fun of helping bring a vision to life.  And Tony and Giotto have maintained the vision through consistently wonderful use of computer graphics, simulations and prototypes.  There has never been anything ‘abstract’ about the e-Go.  Tony has had fully rendered computer graphics from day one.

Which brings me to the second thing – ‘product integrity’.  Tony has always envisaged a clean and beautifully designed product, sparse graphics and a totally consistent experience for partners and customers; professional and of the utmost quality.  His stand at AeroExpo followed this philosophy and on today’s cold and windy airfield all the e-Go team were dressed uniformly, neat and cool.

And the final element I’ve watched throughout has been the use of simulation.  The aircraft dynamics were simulated during development.  This computer model then underpinned the flight simulator.  Which was used during the development of the ‘glass cockpit’ for early user feedback.  And the flight simulator enables customers to experience the sports performance of the plane and build familiarity with its dynamics.  Today, Tony told me that the real aircraft matches the simulator characteristics to an uncanny degree.

So, a fascinating project and a great achievement – as much in how it’s being done as the fact it’s being done at all.

See their site at www.e-goaeroplanes.com/

e-Go Taxi

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This was the profound insight that enabled Charles Parsons to develop the steam turbineIMG00484-20130613-1109 architecture we know today – multiple rows of blades on a single shaft, each row of blades extracting power from the jet of steam.  And from there to power station turbines.

IMG00482-20130613-1106

 

 

I had a fascinating few hours last week at Cambridge’s Whittle Laboratory where the gas turbine engines they research are part of Parson’s heritage.  And where, incidentally, researchers continue to have quite profound insights, now into the aerodynamics of the blades in aero engine compressors and how blade shapes can be designed to reduce fuel consumption.IMG00485-20130613-1115

Idea plus implementation meets significant need at target cost.  How’s this for a development?

www.indiegogo.com/projects/282006

If you want to move earth, gravel or snow, then finding some way of steering a pushed board seems a good way to go.  And that’s exactly what the early graders were.

But if the board is at an angle to the direction of travel then the machine becomes very difficult to steer in a straight line.  And if you’re working on a sloped surface (like a cambered road) it can get very tricky indeed.

So, in 1885, when J.D. Adams invented the leaning wheel grader he showed how to use a lean applied to the steering wheels to counteract the side forces and so make the unruly machines much more controllable.  And in the early days of horse-drawn graders with no hydraulic assistance it was vital to keep the opposing forces of earth-moving and steering under control.  And this fundamental innovation has proved vital to grader operation ever since.  Caterpillar introduced the rear-engine configuration for ease of visibility for the operator, then, in 1934, the dual rear axle configuration which addressed the stability of the platform – and the architecture of the grader was fixed into a form still used today.

So, during a recent holiday visiting family in Western Australia, it was great to find an example of Adams’ pivotal early innovation in Cunderdin’s museum – a No 11, Adams grader from the 1920s.

And here’s a detail of the rack and pinion arrangement for the front wheels. (The rack needs to be curved to cater for the arc described by the tie-rod as the wheels lean – obviously! (?)).

In 1898, CY O’Connor, the state engineer in Western Australia, was developing the plans to build what would be the world’s longest pipeline at that time to supply water from Perth to the goldfields (about 350 miles).  In those days pipelines were made of lengths of sheet steel curved into semi circles and either welded or riveted.  Riveting raised problems not only of corrosion but also of considerable friction over the length of the pipe.

In 1896, one Mephan Ferguson, head of the eponymous Adelaide engineering firm, had a stroke of inspiration, and observing the dovetail joints in his desk drawer realised that a similar approach could be applied to joining the steel of the piping sections.  He developed the ‘jointing bar’, a strip of metal formed into the shape of anl ‘H’.  The sections of pipe fitted into the gaps and the arms closed up to seal the pipe.

 

Section of the original pipeline, showing the locking bar and the cement liner of the pipe

 

He gained his original patent in 1897 and went on to develop and patent machines for closing the jointing bars.

O’ Connor was impressed by the performance of the system and let contracts to Ferguson and also to G&C Hoskins and Co, who agreed to use the same method, needing both firms to supply the amount of piping needed.

The jointing bar has become the symbol of the heritage trail of the pipeline in Western Australia.  And to me, a symbol of the power of analogy in invention.

 

See also the following for an excellent description of the whole project and its context: http://www.apia.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/The%20Coolgardie%20Pipeline%20-%20100%20years%20of%20service%20-%20Fletcher%20et%20al%20APIA%20Paper%20091002.pdf

 

Recently read “The Lever of Riches – technological creativity and economic progress” by Joel Mokyr and really enjoyed it.  As well as some fascinating history Mokyr dissects various theories about explanations for the conditions for technology progress.  I particularly like his thinking about ecological and evolutionary analogies for technology development and exploitation.  He’s very precise about the importance of being clear about the unit of analysis (the firm or the idea) and ensuring that analogies are just that – and I think that clarity leads him to more insightful conclusions.

I also like his differentiation between a ‘macroinvention’ – the ones that set industries off on whole new paths  and ‘microinventions’ – the continuous adaptive incremental improvements.  As he says “a macroinvention is an invention without clear-cut parentage, representing a clear break from previous technique”.  And the two types complement each other.  The macro requires the micro to perfect it and optimise it, while the micro without the macro will eventually peter out.

Of course, these two also map nicely onto the evolutionary analogue of punctuated equilibrium.

Mokyr also comments on that most fascinating of invention – the ones that could have occurred at any time.  The majority of inventions and innovations are a consequence of history, of a point in time, depend on capability and are unlikely to have occurred earlier.  But these ‘timeless’ ones are special.

Doing a bit more research, I find that 400 years ago Francis Bacon distinguished between inventions that depend upon the appropriate technology and those which could have been made at any time, though his examples are debatable [1].

The wheelbarrow and the button are Mokyr’s examples of inventions “whose timing we cannot explain”.  Such inventions fascinate me because they have such capacity for rapid roll-out and exploitation (i.e. effective innovation), simply because they don’t have a fundamental technology constraint.  (But of course they may face other constraints – such as social acceptability, opposing vested interests, regulatory constraints).

Business model innovation is often a ‘timeless invention’  – another reason for its potential power and impact.

There are also variants of this phenomenon expressed as i) “It’s obvious once you’ve seen it” and ii) “you didn’t know you needed it until you saw it”.  Type (i) are the solutions to well-known problems and may very well be ‘timeless’ and Type (ii) are solutions to unarticulated needs.  But Type (ii) are usually dependent on a new capability being available to meet the need, so may not be good examples.

Encouragingly, as technology accelerates, we move to a world where we can probably do it – if we could but imagine / envisage / invent it – we don’t have to wait for the technology to catch up, unlike the condition of the last several thousand years.  Hence even if such technology-based innovations aren’t ‘timeless’, they may well be innovations ‘whose time has come’.

But there’s no obvious framework for developing a competency in these ‘timeless’ forms of invention.  It presumably requires a clear grasp of the functional need to be addressed together with a very rich repertoire of mental models and paradigms to provide candidate solution paths.  And then a flash of inspiration?  But it’s not at all clear how this form of invention might be codified or institutionalised (despite the best efforts to date of TRIZ practitioners, de Bono and others in creative thinking).  There’s still space for further development of insight here.

 

 

[1] Donald Cardwell, http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/1968HisSc…7..112C/0000114.000.html

 

An illuminating article in the Economist “Playing with Fire” (www.economist.com/node/21547999) contains a fascinating timeline of financial innovation from 3000BC to today.  One of the commentators points out also that commodities futures trading started in the Osaka rice market about 1700.

I think the article might have made a little more about the difference between products for ‘risk transfer’ and the effect of ‘risk creation’, albeit because of an inability of the user to evaluate the product.  Social impact products then add the difficulty of evaluating outcome to the problems of evaluating risk during the life of the product.

Ignoring for a moment, products designed specifically for ‘risk creation’ – like betting on horse racing!

Re-inventing the wheel

October 22, 2011

If you’ve visited my website you’ll know I’m fascinated by people who innovate by approaching problems in a fundamentally different way.  One such was George Cayley who is best known for designing the first glider to successfully fly with a human on board.  In pursuit of lightness he needed to address the heavy wooden wheels of the day that took the load in compression in their wooden spokes.  Cayley invented the ‘tension-spoke’ wheel – like today’s bicycle wheel.  Use wires instead of wood, use tension instead of compression and, conceptually, ‘hang the axle from the wheel’.  Brilliant reframing of the problem and solution.  And the rest is history.

Then there was Michelin’s effort – the ‘tweel’ touched on in an earlier post here (https://innovationcoaching.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/innovation-and-system-boundaries/).

Another iconoclast is John Keogh who managed to patent the wheel in Australia in 2001. See (http://pericles.ipaustralia.gov.au/aub/pdf/nps/2002/0808/2001100012A4/2001100012.pdf) for a copy of the patent.  He did this to highlight flaws in the then recently introduced ‘innovation patent’.  While the patent won’t stand up to a challenge, it’s a nice example of reinventing the wheel!

How often do innovators think about what and how their customers learn?  And about who teaches them?

 

Innovation is a dance between developers (of a product or a service) and their consumers and users.  The innovators seek new things to offer, either to do a job better or perhaps to do a job that the consumer didn’t recognise was possible.  And the consumer is on the lookout, consciously or unconsciously, for better ways to do things or new things to do.  Sometimes the innovator leads, think iTunes (sorry for the same old example) and sometimes the innovator follows (“we’re proud to be customer-led”).

 

But the innovator isn’t the only player in the game.  Competitors shape consumer expectations.  Shaped well, expectations and familiarity can be very powerful.  For example, admittedly some years ago, Nokia built a loyal following of consumers who liked the Nokia mobile phone interface.  Many refused to switch brands because they liked the Nokia experience.

 

But competitors teach consumers to want different things.  Perhaps the most compelling example is in the range of apps available for smartphones.  Many apps offer things to do that you simply didn’t know you needed.  Standing in London on a wet night and can’t find a taxi?  There’s an app that will tell you what buses are nearby and will take you to your destination.  Knowing that teaches consumers several things; they needn’t walk and they needn’t pay the premium for a taxi.

 

Which also illustrates that competition comes from strange places in a complex world.  A smartphone app enables a bus to compete with a taxi on new terms.

 

So when you’re thinking about the users of your products or services you need to be aware that they will learn.  And the best teacher will have an advantage.  And teachers from elsewhere will change the game.

 

Are you thinking about how your customer learns? From whom? And what?

 

 

Innovation versus Efficiency

November 5, 2010

I had two depressing conversations today – both with people declaring that innovation is not a priority for them.  The first person’s point of view was encapsulated as “we need efficiency not innovation if we’re to survive” and the second was “if I have to invest in innovation I’d rather avoid the risk and pursue efficiency instead”.

The first person went on to complain that he had achieved all the efficiency savings he could find and from here he would be cutting into corporate capability. Maybe, just maybe, innovation could contribute to the search for efficiency?  Indeed innovation might be the only alternative to cuts that would further damage the firm??  Maybe, but his board colleagues wanted efficiency, not innovation.

The second person was happy to support innovation, but not if it cost anything.  So we explored the costs of cutting instead (redundancy, management attention) and the risks (lost service levels, missed opportunities, increased organisational fragility).  Maybe the cost of innovation wasn’t so high after all?  Maybe, but he’d rather pursue innovation later, perhaps if the next round of cuts frees up some cash.

Innovation is now being seen as an end in itself.  Not helpful.