Old Ideas Trigger New Innovations

Pioneering companies are tapping into existing ideas to create the next-generation of cutting-edge technologies. Here are just three examples, including power, pens, and PLM.

As I scanned the news wire for today’s technology headlines, it became clear to me that tomorrow’s next great product innovation is rooted in yesterday’s ideas─ from power, to pens, to PLM.

The first thing to jump out at me was ABB’s announcement of an innovative power system for marine applications that is based on a new kind of direct current (DC) electrical system.

The DC power network, invented by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s, was the standard method of power distribution in the United States for a while after its creation. That is, until George Westinghouse and physicist Nikola Tesla developed the alternating current (AC) alternative and won the resulting power struggle. The difference between the two is found in the flow of the electrical charge. DC is one-way and cannot transmit electricity very efficiently over long distances. AC, on the other hand, can reverse direction, can move large amounts of power across great distances, and, through the use of a transformer, can be converted from a high-voltage distribution system to a lower voltage for consumption in a home, office building, or factory.

As engineering and manufacturing professionals, you’re not learning anything new here. But did you know there’s a DC power play playing out today?

Specifically, ABB’s new onboard DC system for marine vessels is said to be able to reduce fuel consumption and emissions by as much as 20%.

I’m not going to attempt to explain the engineering behind it (because I can’t), but it appears to me that ABB has applied innovative thinking around existing technology in a way that, according to the company, could lead to a DC resurgence that would make Edison proud.

“We are seeing a revival that is making DC the technology of choice for many power transmission solutions, battery storage, and other energy supply applications,” said Veli-Matti Reinikkala, head of ABB’s Process Automation division, in a statement. “With an onboard DC solution, we can vary generator speed to optimize fuel consumption and improve a ship’s operational efficiency by up to 20% compared with traditional AC powered systems.”

Not bad.

Then my attention was pulled from power to pens. Specifically, a press release announcing a recent Forrester Consulting study which said that today’s smart phone-wielding information workers still rely heavily on handwritten notes to get their jobs done. Indeed, 87% of the 1,000 respondents indicated an electronic device just can’t replace a good old-fashioned checklist, leaving them the challenge of integrating what they jot down with what they input into their laptop.

Enter Livescribe, maker of the Pulse and Echo smart pens, which include an infrared camera to capture everything you write down on paper, a microphone to capture your verbal “notes to self,” and a USB connector to transfer notes and audio to your computer. Livescribe, not surprisingly, commissioned the Forrester study. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

It’s a pen. An idea so simple, it’s brilliant.

Will I run out and get myself a Pulse smart pen right away? Probably not. But I remember a decade ago watching someone in my office test a smart phone by placing it in a cradle to synch its data with the desktop. At the time I thought, “Who is going to take the time to do that?” Not many people at first, but as the technology evolved and we could wirelessly synch up in real time, we grew pretty attached to those smart phones, didn’t we?

Lastly, as I perused the technology news I came across another study conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services and sponsored by Siemens PLM. The folks at Harvard asked 1,214 firms, from manufacturers, to professional services, to healthcare, how they were positioning themselves for growth as the economy improves.

Half of the respondents said that increasing their rate of innovation is a priority in 2011, and that they plan to increase R&D efficiency by leveraging technology for collaboration, the study said. They also saw an opportunity to create new processes that build cross-functional teams and link with external partners as key benefits of strategic portfolio management. Well, aren’t they lucky that there’s an app for that─ called product lifecycle management─ and that vendors like Siemens, Dassault Systemes, and PTC are working hard to facilitate collaboration by integrating social networking and business process management capabilities into their software.

I know I could find many more examples of how pioneering companies are tapping into existing ideas to create the next-generation of cutting-edge technologies. But for now I’ll stop at what I’m calling “the three ‘Ps’ of innovation”: power; pens; and PLM.

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One Comment

  1. Mark
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink


    Not wanting to be pedantic, but there is a slight factual error in the statement “DC is one-way and cannot transmit electricity very efficiently over long distances.”

    DC is in fact more efficient than AC in many scenarios for long distance bulk power transmission, although it was not until the 1930’s that technology was developed (in fact, by ASEA – now ABB) to convert the high voltages required for efficient transmission down to a safe voltage for customer use. By this time of course AC had already become dominant.

    DC is increasingly being used for long distance bulk power transfer due to its many advantages over AC. The fact that many power applications today require DC current (such as electronics and LED lighting) is leading to a potential resurgence in DC power technology. A good example of this is its use in data centers where DC power systems avoid unnecessary AC/DC conversation steps.

    There is a fascinating article explaining some of the history here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_Currents

    Hope that is of interest!

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