By Jack Hipple
Over the past few years, innovation research has focused much of its efforts on what is now called the fuzzy front end. The term was originally coined by Peter Koen, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. It refers to the creation of new ideas and product concepts that go into what is traditionally called the stage-gate process, where ideas are evaluated and pruned for eventual commercialization.
From the mid 1990s to 2003, the industry focused on tools and processes such as Six Sigma, Design for Six Sigma (DFSS), Quality Function Deployment (QFD) and other enterprise tools designed to eliminate waste in both processes and product design. After many successes in these areas, however, corporations discovered that in the age of innovation, they had not created a process for producing totally new process and product ideas. In addition, their hiring and personnel policies had minimized the number of creative individuals who did not fit into a Six Sigma mold.
The basics of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) contain many simple and profound predictive lines and patterns of product and technology evolution that can be used to provide structure and guidance to fuzzy front end activities.
No business can survive without the development of new products. Even the most ironclad patents only protect an invention for 20 years from the time of disclosure. During this time, competitors are working hard (sometimes using TRIZ tools) to find ways to circumvent these patents or by offering a better, less expensive way of providing the same result or function. The developer of the new product or service begins efforts to improve it, optimize it and protect these new incremental improvements through additional patents, though none of these are as dramatic as the original one. The quantity of patents may actually increase. Consider, for example, the accidental discovery of vulcanization in the rubber technology business, which allowed for the economical production of long lasting tires. Since that time there have been thousands of patents relating to optimizing the cure time, rubber chemistries, additives such as carbon black and tread design. The path of patents and time is illustrated in Figure 1.
The customer for this new product, at first, is overjoyed at an invention that allows car wheels to promote comfortable transportation in the same way as an arthritic is ecstatic over a new patented drug that minimizes pain. But over time, complaints over the cost increase and generic drug manufacturers get ready to supply the need. While this is going on, existing patent holders are looking for additional incremental patent protection through time release formulations and combinations with other drugs already on the market. Eventually a totally new drug or another approach (nutritional changes) arrives with a new breakthrough patent and the cycle repeats itself.
Early cars were not particularly comfortable to drive. The lack of conveniences taken for granted (such as shock absorbers, power steering, brakes, windshield wipers) were not even on the horizon. Tires and wheels progressed in the normal incremental way. What was the fuzzy front end to tire manufacturers? Take a look at the classic optimization curve (not liked by many TRIZ professionals) shown in Figure 2:
The breakthrough that first occurs is the invention of tubeless tires. Instead of optimizing the design combination of tube strength and wall strength, just eliminates the tube. This is a well known TRIZ approach for trimming or a more ideal result using the resources one already has (i.e. the outside tire). Tube manufacturers are out of business. What other TRIZ principle does this illustrate? The use of a:
What does this look like for the wheel and tire? See Table 1:
|Table 1: Wheel System|
So here are the first clues as to how to use TRIZ when doing fuzzy front end thinking:
For example, take a tubeless tire. An individual must start the optimization again and use computational fluid dynamics to model water pathways through tread patterns to optimize tire design for rainy conditions. Next, different rubber properties are chosen as a function of location (i.e. TRIZ separation principles) to optimize traction in varying road conditions, weather conditions and types of roads. Much of this work allows additional optimization of the rubber composition for a specific tread design to be made more economical.
What is the level up that needs attention paid to? The answer is the wheel. How can the wheel system perform its function without the tire? How can a tire not have air? Take a look at the newest tire invention from Michelin, called the Tweel, shown in Figure 3.
The function of the tire has been integrated into the wheel assembly, eliminating the basic tire. There are still rubber spokes to provide the cushioning, but may not be supplied by the original makers of tires. Systems integrate upward over time, this is where fuzzy front end thinkers at Goodyear and Uniroyal need to be thinking. And if these thoughts lead them to something other than a conventional tire, they can make a proactive choice about what technology developments are necessary. But can they do them? A few questions to think about:
These may be uncomfortable discussions, but better ahead of time rather than when it is too late.
The next expected transition would involve the elimination of a separate wheel function. They are moving dirt with a mechanical field, the lowest level field from a TRIZ perspective. An individual sees dirt moved with dynamite, a thermal and chemical field, but in a much uncontrolled fashion. How could these results be achieved without the tractor at all and what new business might that mean for Michelin?
Dirt and the necessity to remove it have been around since mankind first moved into a civilized living space. Look at the fuzzy front end of process development in regards to dirt removal. Start with brooms and sweepers, basic mechanical fields. The makers of brooms were optimizing handle design, durability of straw, straw separation and other physical aspects of broom design. If these manufacturers were using conventional consumer research approaches, they were asking users how the broom could be improved. They were hearing answers like different kinds of bristles for different floors, stronger and longer lasting bristles, flexible handles and other similar input. No one said: "Could you develop a liquid detergent that, along with hot water, would clean the floors more completely?" The transition from a mechanical field to a thermal and chemical field is exactly what TRIZ analysis would predict. So a good cleaning (not broom or sweeper) company should ask how the next level of field could be used.
Then thousands of detergent formulations were developed, all optimizing formulations around various kinds of dirt, types of floors, costs and application techniques. And of course it would always be better to eliminate the thermal field (hot water) altogether, so cold water could be used. Are there any broom companies in this business? In many heavy duty industrial situations, all three of these fields are used in heavy duty floor scrubbing using:
Even this simple example illustrates field combination and makes the mechanical field more dynamic.
What if an individual is the fuzzy front end manager for Proctor and Gamble or SC Johnson? The next field in the line of evolution is an electrical field. Start to think about how an individual might use such a field in cleaning. Develop electrostatic dust collectors and in combination with a chemical field, develop spray on furniture products that use static repulsion to minimize dust collection. Approach this by going back to the ancient TRIZ contradiction table and look at the parameter of improving the stability of an object's composition vs. loss of time to find the suggested principles of parameter change and mechanical substitution. Those are the two design parameters of a wood cleaner that inhibit dust buildup.
Instead of just optimizing the chemical, propellant and spray can design, which is well worth doing, start to look again at the field line in regards to electromagnetic use. Is there a way to use static and a mild electromagnetic field to pick up dust from a wooden floor? Of course – it sells under the name Swiffer. The point here is that there always needs to be a next generation replacement view of new product and business development along with some optimization of the current product.
What could come next in floor care? Thinking in general about TRIZ principles, ask: "Why cannot the floor clean itself?" Ovens do. Look up a level from the normal floor cleaning vision, why cannot something be built into the flooring that resists dirt? Several repellant technologies are available for all kinds of materials. If a manufacturer like Armstrong imbedded a cleaning system into their flooring product, where would that leave Procter & Gamble and numerous other cleaning product suppliers? The flooring suppliers would simply buy the materials needed from many different suppliers in the same way that Michelin can buy compounded rubber instead of a tire.
Take a look at one last example of fuzzy front end thinking – the care of our teeth. Consider both lines of evolution and multi-level thinking skills from TRIZ.
The original dental shops in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia are an interesting and frightening view of oral care in the 1600s. The range of mechanical tools used to pull teeth looks like a modern day tool box with no anesthetic. Since then a lot has changed from a field evolution standpoint. Anesthetics such as ether make patients unconscious during oral surgery. But tooth decay remains. A chemical field, such as sucrose, dissolves tooth enamel that protects the sensitive root system. Eliminating sugar (a resource required for decay) improved the situation, but not perfectly (it is hard to get children not to eat candy and other sweets). The chemical field, fluoride, bonds to tooth enamel and protects against the sucrose chemical field. For back molars enamel coatings can be deposited as a chemical barrier to a cavity in crevices, again a chemical field enhanced by a thermal field in its application.
An electric or electromagnetic field has not been exploited, though one does see the beginnings of the use of UV light, an optical field, as an oral treatment as well as an aid for curing molar fillings.
The evolution of toothbrushes is equally interesting from a TRIZ perspective and begs the question of how much sooner these products could have been brought to market had simple TRIZ lines of evolution been brought into the product planning and research strategy meetings.
According to Wikipedia, the first toothbrush was invented by a prisoner in England in 1780 who was less than satisfied with the then "state of the art" technique of rubbing a rag across one's teeth with soot and salt (note: mechanical and chemical fields). He took some animal bones, drilled some holes and borrowed some bristles from a guard and made a toothbrush.1,2 It took World War II to accelerate interest in brushing teeth with soldiers unable to be at home brushing their teeth. Bristles were improved and synthetic nylon bristles were introduced. The first simple commercial toothbrushes looked something like this:
What known TRIZ principles are demonstrated? The toothbrush can be purchased with soft, medium and firm bristles. The length of the handle varies for children and adults. A flexible link is in the center of the handle to increase dynamism and flexibility (a key TRIZ line of evolution) in reaching back teeth and gums. Toothbrush heads are no longer identical. Bristles on the outside are softer than in the middle so that less pressure is put on the gums versus the teeth (separation in space TRIZ principle.) See Figure 5:
Toothpaste development continued as well, adding additional chemical fields such as strontium for sensitive teeth and superior fluoride additives to supplement that in drinking water. Another TRIZ line of evolution is a vibrational field with electric toothbrushes, increasing the frequency and dynamism of the brushing action and automating the ease of increased brushing frequency.
What is interesting is to go back and look at both the incremental and major changes and ask what if TRIZ had been a part of the new product thinking and market research, how much faster might these developments have occurred?
As far as levels are concerned, the fuzzy front end is equally interesting.
|Table 2: Levels of Oral Care|
Chewing and drinking system
Mouth and tongue
Gums and teeth
Enamel, roots and tissue
Tooth decay was first started by dealing solely at the tooth level (digging out cavities with a mechanical field, filling with mercury amalgam and later porcelain materials). When it was discovered that fluoride could harden enamel, it introduced fluoridated water as a means of getting this chemical field into the mouth through the super-system of drinking. It was also discovered that tongue cleaning, something few people ever did, is effective in improving resistance to bacterial growth by minimizing the contact between residual food particles and the teeth; moving up at least two levels in the system diagram. Fluoridated water moves up another notch as does the consumption of certain foods reported to minimize cavities or remove particulates from between teeth (such as cheese or popcorn).
By comparing the fuzzy front end from the past and present, some interesting ideas might come to mind. Take a look at the basic premise of super-systems integrating the functionality of sub-systems, an individual might ask how they can get nutrition without eating in the conventional way, thus totally eliminating the basic cause of both tooth decay and bad breath. Now this is a contradiction for TRIZ to consider. One wants the function of the food and its nutrition, but not the necessity to chew. There are also some unexplored opportunities in field evolution as electromagnetic fields are not yet in use. Toothpastes do not change their composition with the contaminants in the mouth. How could the total food system be used as a positive (similar to fluoride) instead of a negative?
The fuzzy front end has become a new field of study for those involved in corporate innovation activities, but as with problem solving, there is little science behind the mental activities. The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving provides many tools to proactively assess where the next fuzzy front end is and how to aggressively develop new product concepts ahead of the competition and control intellectual property that has great value.
Note: This paper was originally presented at The Altshuller Institute's TRIZCON2009.
Jack Hipple is a principal with Innovation-TRIZ. He is the TRIZ instructor for AIChE/ASME and does TRIZ workshops for ASQ, PDMA and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. He has written TRIZ articles for The TRIZ Journal, Quality World, Mechanical Engineering, World Futures Quarterly, Creativity and Innovation Management's inaugural TRIZ issue, as well as a special three-part series on TRIZ for Chemical Engineering Progress. Contact Jack Hipple at jwhinnovator (at) eartlink.net or visit http://www.Innovation-TRIZ.com.