When faced with engineering creativity challenges, most organizations use brainstorming as their only approach. Developed in the 1950s by Alex Osborn for developing advertising campaigns, brainstorming is a good approach. It's not the only approach, though, and in many cases, it's not the best approach.
To use some phrases from aerospace, brainstorming often results in an undesirable combination of high terminal velocity and inadequate midflight guidance. What we need are approaches to guide our brainstorming such that our energy is focused on solving creativity challenges. We need to focus our creative energies on the design challenge.
I employ three creativity stimulation techniques: biomimicry, nine screens, and TRIZ. Biomimicry comes from the Greek words bios (life) and mimesis (to imitate). Nature is an engineer with 4 billion years of experience (she's solved a lot of problems in that time), and biomimicry looks to nature for creative inspiration. Sometimes simply thinking about examples in nature guides us to solutions. At other times, we can use a more structured approach to state the challenge and follow a prescribed brainstorming path to potential solutions.
Biomimicry is a fascinating approach with a strong creativity track record. Japan's bullet train is based on a bird's profile. Noise-minimizing leading edges for wind-powered generators are based on whale fins, and smart munition detect-and-select sensor fusion is based on the rattlesnake's integration of vibration, heat, and visual inputs.
Nine screens is another great approach for focused brainstorming. It includes a three-by-three matrix (creating nine screens) with the design challenge in the center. The nine screens suggest both system level and time perspectives, with time along one axis and system level on the other. The concept is to look to the past and the future for potential solutions, and to consider both component and higher-level system perspectives. This creates nine perspectives from which to consider the design challenge.
Science fiction is a good way to look to the future; the movie Alien inspired new military weaponry. The Civil War Gatling gun inspired modern high-rate-of-fire aircraft armaments.
TRIZ is a third powerful creativity stimulation concept. It's an acronym formed from the Russian words for "theory of inventive problem solving." Genrich Altshuller was a Soviet patent officer who noticed inventive patterns in patent applications. Sent to the gulags by Stalin, Altshuller survived to create the TRIZ approach with its 40 inventive principles and the associated 39-by-39 contradiction matrix.
TRIZ involves stating a creativity challenge and finding its inherent contradiction. It uses the contradiction (for example, light weight and high strength) to find potentially applicable inventive principles in the contradiction matrix. The inventive principles are usually not direct answers to the creativity challenge, but they create brainstorming initiation points. It's been said that the bolt-action rifle is based on a simple gate latch (a great concept that became the cover of my book, Unleashing Engineering Creativity).
Joe Berk, a principal member of the Eogogics faculty, teaches process FMEA, root cause failure analysis, engineering statistics, design of experiments, statistical process control, quality management, cost reduction, engineering creativity, technical management/leadership, and technical communications. Before starting his training/consulting practice, he held senior management positions in the engineering, quality assurance, and manufacturing industries. He will host an online class on unleashing creativity on April 25.