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To Invent Like Edison, Learn to Collaborate

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Rob Spiegel
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Good set of principles
Rob Spiegel   6/10/2013 8:29:59 AM
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This book sets out a good set of principles both for collaboration and for devlopment. Nice.

TJ McDermott
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Re: Good set of principles
TJ McDermott   6/10/2013 12:12:45 PM
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Wasn't there an article here in DN (last year, maybe) that came to the conclusion that design by collaboration wasn't a good approach?

I'm not knocking this book at all, simply commenting on two seemingly opposite points of view.

NadineJ
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Re: Good set of principles
NadineJ   6/11/2013 12:03:57 AM
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@TJ--I think it depends on the designer and the form of collaboration.  For example, several successful creatives have discredited brainstorming.  But, stealing (which Edison was well known for) is applauded.

Austin Kleon's book "Steal like an Artist" explains it very well.

Sarah Miller Caldicott's book, featured here, seems to be another good example of how to collaborate well.  It's on my shortlist of books to read now. 

oldguywithtoys
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Re: Good set of principles
oldguywithtoys   6/11/2013 4:39:47 PM
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Collaboration can be a good or bad thing, depending on the collaborators and the reason for the collaboration.  When a previous employer mandated "cross-functional development teams," it was an example of the bad kind.  When the "collaborators" are assigned by management, to a product "we absolutely have to have" because the VP of marketing saw our competitor with it at a trade show, you're liable to get "design by committee" - no real originality because there's no real "buy-in".  With no real "buy-in"  you compete, not for credit for a successful product, but to avoid the blame for one you expect to fail.

On the other hand, when one  seeks out collaborators of his own choosing, and they voluntarily help make his idea real, a great idea can turn into a great product very quickly.  I'm an electronics type, and from the start I realized that I needed help... not in my own area of expertise, but in areas where I'm not expected to have much of a clue. I had my own "cross-functional team" long before it entered the lexicon of management buzzwords.

  I'm not a software engineer, but my friend Ed is: Let's get his input on processor selection and I/O pin assignments.  Let's both talk to Jim, in field service: what can we do, in hardware and software, to make his job easier?  Jay's a mechanical engineer - he's got to mount the board, let's talk to him and to John, in industrial design, and make sure we're all on the same page before we start layout.  Consult with Fred, in purchasing, before the BOM is finalized.  Lean on Mike, in subassembly test, while I'm drawing the schematic, and Bob in board assembly while we're actually doing the layout.  That  collaboration led to what became a "cash-cow" product for that company.

 

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Good set of principles
Cabe Atwell   6/11/2013 5:17:03 PM
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Great advice.

However, Edison was wasteful in his early days of design. The trial and error method was costing a fortune.

Frank J. Sprague joined Edison's team and taught (forced them to learn) the mathematical method. Design on paper first before performing trials. Changed the company forever.

Invent like Edison, before or after Sprague?

C

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Good set of principles
Rob Spiegel   6/12/2013 1:07:52 PM
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I missed that article, but that ;position -- that collaboration isn't so wonderful -- is a contrarian point of view at this point. Boeing led the collaborative design movement in the late 199s by bringing suppliers into the design process. Now the automotive industry is hip deep in the water, sending tons of design to suppliers in collaborative joint efforts.

TJ McDermott
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Re: Good set of principles
TJ McDermott   6/12/2013 1:17:34 PM
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Rob, I don't think Boeing is a poster-child for collaborative design.  The 787 was 2 years behind schedule because their suppliers could not execute, from fastener shortages, to build problems (in Italy), to steep learning curves in Japan.

The battery design that grounded the fleet would also not be a good example of supplier collaboration.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Good set of principles
Rob Spiegel   6/13/2013 1:28:57 PM
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Good point, TJ. Perhaps Boeing provides an example of the shortcomings of collaboration.

Nancy Golden
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Re: Good set of principles
Nancy Golden   6/10/2013 9:12:07 PM
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Makes sense - back in the day we used to assign a test set to an engineer and that would be his or her project. But the test set consisted of hardware, software, and mechanical components as well as customized test fixturing. The best test sets were often done in collaboration with other people that were stronger in specifc aspects than the engineer in charge of the project and the engineer was smart enough to leverage their expertise. I always said that a successful test engineer doesn't have to know everything - they just have to know how to find out what they need. Often times that would be asking a colleague for their input.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Good set of principles
Elizabeth M   6/11/2013 4:51:10 AM
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I can see how collaboration is a better way in some aspects than working in a vacuum, but I also think there is something to be said for both methods, and it depends on what kind of person you're dealing with. Interesting to think Edison had so many collaborators, but not surprising. I wonder if anyone ever felt bad or jealous because he got all the credit for something they also contributed to?

RTristani
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Re: Good set of principles
RTristani   6/11/2013 8:56:50 AM
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Elizabeth, - Dittos on your "both methods" comment.  Well said.  There are times when you need to put your feet up on your desk, listen to your iPod, and think.  And there are times when you need to collaborate.  Knowing the difference is a sign of wisdom.  Also, I have heard an urban legend that Edison highly valued the input of a particular technician of his, a man with far less education, who was actually the one who developed the method by which tungsten could be drawn into a filiment.  Don't know if it is true, but his anti-collaboration with Westinghouse and Tesla were a marque of the age!  If I were a betting man, I would wager that Edison followed your "both methods" comment.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Good set of principles
Elizabeth M   6/12/2013 6:22:43 AM
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Yes, I think it often depends on someone's mood or what type of person they are. Some people just don't like working with other people. I myself am a people person in general, so find collaboration very helpful. That said, in the work I do now, I work alone and in quite a solitary way, so collaboration doesn't come into play. But I'm not an inventor...so I would think bouncing ideas off of others definitely has its place. That's an interesting story about Edison! It's nice to think it's true...often it is people with no formal education who have the type of mind to think outside of the box.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Good set of principles
Rob Spiegel   6/12/2013 1:16:18 PM
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One of the interesting things Edison did to further collaboration was to choose each year a student or young engineer to come and work with him. In evaluating the potential, lucky student, Edison sought personality qualities over knowledge.

Charles Murray
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Re: Good set of principles
Charles Murray   6/12/2013 7:30:41 PM
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Yes, Liz, there's a lot more to Edison's succss than collaboration. One of the aspects not mentioned here is the work hours. Edison was notorious for working long hours, and even sleeping on his desk in the lab, using Watts' Dictionary of Chemistry as his pillow. When I visited Edison's lab in Fort Myers, FL, a couple of years ago, I saw that that lab had a cot. So, apparently, Edison slept in the lab at his vacation home, too. My guess is that it's a lot easier to collaborate with your workers when you're in the lab 20 hours a day.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Good set of principles
Elizabeth M   6/13/2013 5:24:09 AM
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Interesting story, Chuck! I doubt any true slacker ever came up with a great invention! And even great inventors need to sleep...he probably took cat naps in between great bouts of pondering and experimenting. :) Actually, when I shared an office in NYC I had a writer friend who used to have a pillow under her desk so she could take short naps between bursts of writing. It definitely gets the creative juices flowing to reset in between bursts of work, I think.

Charles Murray
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Re: Good set of principles
Charles Murray   6/13/2013 8:06:28 PM
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Yes, naps can be a help, Liz. Edison used to claim that by napping with his head on Watt's Dictionay of Chemistry, he absorbed the intricacies of chemistry.

Notilltom
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Re: Good set of principles
Notilltom   8/2/2013 11:23:17 PM
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While at Iowa State University, it was common for me to doz off when studying often with my head on notes or open books and notes on my chest. It seemed like it would sink in during the nap. Maybe it just helps the brain tuck it back in recoverable memory or facilitates some form of knowledge osmosis. Something had to work to generate five 4.0 quarters of the twelve I spent there as an undergrad.

apresher
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Invent Like Edison
apresher   6/10/2013 4:21:45 PM
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Excellent post. More than ever, engineers are collaborators with so many involved in complex products/systems that demand a multidisciplinary approach.  The book looks like a great potential resource.

The Designist
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Sarah Miller Caldicott perpetuates a false stigma
The Designist   6/11/2013 10:20:21 AM
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Nice column.  But if the intent of the author is to get rid of the stigma around her great-grand uncle, why does she pass one on to us:  "Engineers ... fall in love with their technologies ... You should ... find out what the customer's needs are".  True, but as far as customers go, let me ask you the following.  Do you know of any engineer that is not concerned with his customers' needs?  And if so, is that the rule?

By the way I believe Edison was brilliant ... No need to cover for his harsh work environment ...

If anyone truly becomes a more effective engineer from this book, I would certainly like to hear about it; and then I would know to stay away from that person.

 

profgroove
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Edison/collaboration
profgroove   6/11/2013 11:08:37 AM
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Learned from Edison: ...  Sure I'll collaborate, where's 'my piece of the action'?


sc
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Great principle
sc   6/11/2013 12:21:28 PM
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Edison was a great man, no doubt about it. He invented things people didn't even know they needed or wanted. For instance who knew they needed a phonograph? So knowing what people want or need is not necessarily the best approach to inventing something great.

Edison did not have a good reputation as far as collaboration goes. For example, Nicola Tesla collaborated with Edison but it didn't turn out too well for Tesla.

Droid
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Collaboration - thought organizer
Droid   6/11/2013 2:30:52 PM
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Based on my own experience, collaboration is useful even if the other(s) involved have no clue what problem you are attempting to solve or how you are trying to solve it.  I can't count how many times I've observed or experienced the ability to creatively solve a problem by simply talking it out with someone else.   And in my experience, it doesn't seem to matter if collaboration is with a PhD or my 14 yr old daughter.  Ideas build on ideas  and when and the very act of having to convey the idea to someone else seems to spawn the next layer of ideas.

Thinking_J
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Simplification of rules.. has it's limits
Thinking_J   6/11/2013 3:59:30 PM
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Many examples of what to do and what not to do. Simplifications for success. AKA 'rules of thumb', ' rules to live by', 'lessons learned'. etc.....

And just as many examples of when those rules/guidelines don't work.

'Listen to your customers' ..

' to be truly innovative, don't listen to your customers - they don't know what they want until they see it demonstrated'

'be focused and passionate' to some engineers would be in conflict with 'being colabrative'.

 

Similar to the 'serenity prayer'. .. the trick is having the wisdom to know when a rule applicable and appropriate.

Just knowing the 'lessons learned' ... isn't enough.

profgroove
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Iron
collaboration/exploitation
profgroove   6/13/2013 4:17:23 PM
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To clarify; sans (earlier) cynicism:  To motivate collaboration among creative & talented people, rewards from successes must be equably distributed, other-wise the word is: exploitation.


Charles Murray
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Re: collaboration/exploitation
Charles Murray   6/20/2013 9:24:33 PM
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Maybe a trifle cynical, profgroove, I could find a lot of engineers who would heartily agree with that definition.

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