Engineering, at its core, is problem solving, and problem solving requires creativity. But what's creativity?
Often, it's recognizing the genius in things that have been done before.
To a greater or lesser extent, most engineers have collections of items, ideas, or information that they refer to occasionally when they need inspiration. At IDEO, an engineering and product design consulting firm that has designed everything from Apple's first mouse to hand-held computers to toothpaste tubes, engineers have formalized the concept of a "swipe file." They call it the Tech Box, and it's a virtual museum of offbeat engineering innovation. The Tech Box contains examples of innovations large and small that IDEO's engineers play with and talk about as they brainstorm ways to solve engineering problems for clients. Every engineer should have one.
Dennis Boyle, senior design engineer and studio leader at IDEO, recently gave me a tour of the Tech Box at the firm's Palo Alto, CA facility. It's a metal filing cabinet with five drawers, each with a different label, such as "Thermo and Optical," "Amazing Materials," and "Manufacturing Processes." Inside each is a collection of gadgets, some plain, some weird looking, all incorporating technology that IDEO's engineers might be able to apply to their various projects. On top of the cabinet is an iMAC computer with files on each of the approximately 250 gadgets.
Among the contents: two high-hysteresis balls, one that bounces highly and one that, though it looks identical, doesn't bounce; a flexible electroluminescent display like you might find in portable computers and night lights; and a yo-yo in which centrifugal force pushes clutch elements toward the rim, disengaging from the spindle so even beginners can make it "sleep."
While we were looking at some of the other contents, two IDEO engineers came over and started taking items out of the box and examining them as they were talking about a particular design problem they had. The Tech Box and its contents stimulated their thinking, and that's what it's for.
The Tech Box is a combination tool box and toy box, and the toy box feel of it is important. "Engineers with kids' attitudes thrive here," Boyle says.
Get yourself a toy box of ideas. You'll solve problems sooner--and have more fun while you're doing it.