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Get creative

Get creative

If anyone understands the relationship of creativity to design, it's Bruce Borchers. He is the research engineer at the NASA Ames Research Center and the University of Arizona (Tuscon, AZ) who designed a system that will fly on NASA's Mars Lander mission next year and generate oxygen from the Red Planet's atmosphere.


The oxygen generation system developed for NASA's surveyor has a dome that is the size of a softball. Wires suspend the cell assembly in the center of the dome, radiating out from the center like a bicycle wheel. Extending up from the cell and spiraling around the inside of the dome are incoming and outgoing carbon dioxide lines. Extending down from the cell assembly, which is surrounded by insulaiton (not shown), is the outgoing oxygen line. In this computer-generated image, the dome is partially cut away to show the inner components of the system. The entire oxygen generation system weighs 1 kilo and operates on 15W power.

For the Mars Lander, Borchers needed a way of supporting the system's reactor cell. The support structure's requirements included low thermal conductance and high structural strength without much mass. "What comes to mind when you think of a strong configuration with low thermal conductance and minimal mass?" he asks. "The first thing that came to my mind was a bicycle wheel."

Borchers used wires in tension for supporting the reactor cell, which is similar to how a bicycle wheel works, but in reverse. The design met several design criteria, including Mars Lander's structural requirements to withstand re-entry accelerations of up to 35 Gs, minimal mass, and minimal heat loss. So, how did he come up with the idea?

Borchers says that for him the creative process starts with gathering the facts and establishing the boundaries. "For example, basic laws of physics establish the boundaries," he says.

Borchers says he then looks for optimal solutions. "You have to look at the effects, weigh the constraints against the solutions, and iterate," he says. In the case of the oxygen generation system, Borchers says he came up with a solution by looking outside into other fields beyond aerospace for answers. "I think creativity is the ability to come up with non-traditional approaches to problems," he says.

Removing fences

Idea generation sometimes involves obtaining input from others and combining their ideas with your ideas. Jami Shah, who works for the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ), is finding ways of facilitating these creative stimuli by tearing down fences.

Shah brought together several groups of design engineers from private companies. He gave each group the task of designing a new product. One of the products was a fence post extractor.

Shah instructed the design engineers to make the extractor portable. He told designers that the fence posts were between six and seven feet long with up to three feet of fence post buried in the ground. An initial vertical force of up to 500 lbs. would be required for extracting the posts, which must be in reusable condition after extraction.

Each design engineer was asked to sketch a drawing of their fence post extractor idea, label the components, and provide explanatory text. Next, design engineers would pass their ideas to others in the group, who then evaluated the design and modified it.

"We looked at the second and subsequent cycles in which each subject, after receiving ideas generated from another person, attempts to interpret them, modify, or detail the ideas," says Shah. He cautions that more work is required before forming firm conclusions, but adds, "We believe that progressive idea-generation methods appear to be successful in providing positive creative stimuli from members to other members. They also appear to remove the designers'bias to their own ideas, particularly to their first ideas."

An additional benefit of Shah's progressive idea generation method is that, with each cycle, ideas become more detailed and encompass additional desired functions. "This means that when a design team is done with a session of progressive idea generation, there are usually several conceptual designs ready for further engineering analysis," says Shah.

Borrowing ideas

Rather than obtaining input from others directly, creative people sometimes obtain stimuli by observing what others have done and then transferring the idea to their endeavors. Walter Moos, the CEO and Chairman of pharmaceutical developer Mitokor (San Diego, CA), knows that borrowing ideas is a path to design solutions.

"Years ago, the process for combining molecules in new ways to produce new drug therapies was very slow," says Moos. He estimates that it used to take one chemist a week in a lab to manually combine chemicals into a new compound that would serve as a candidate for a new drug therapy. "We needed a way of automating the process, so rather than produce 50 new compounds in a year, we could produce a thousand new compounds in the same period of time," he says.

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Moos remembers sitting in the laboratory with some colleagues thinking about the problem. The problem centered on how to quickly and efficiently combine very small quantities of chemicals in very specific locations. "We knew there was some way to do it, but hadn't yet figured it out. Then, someone glanced over at the inkjet printer and got the idea to spray chemicals on a substrate much the same way that an inkjet print head sprays primary colors and combines them into complex colors," he says. The idea automated the synthesis of chemical compounds.

Moos says that creative people are the ones who often go against conventional notions. "In much of life, we see lemmings, all jumping off the same cliff together," he says. "The creative person is the one that thinks about a situation and decides to go off in the other direction and try another approach."

Psychology and creativity

Borchers, Shah, and Moos demonstrate that finding creative solutions is possible when the appropriate techniques are used. But if we are all capable of thinking about non-traditional approaches, obtaining input from others, and borrowing ideas, why aren't more of us more creative?

Robert Kriegel, a psychologist who lectures on creativity, says that fear is one of the prominent limitations to creativity. He believes that non-traditional approaches are sometimes hindered because many people are just not willing to rock the boat or risk the possibility of being ridiculed for their ideas. "The courage to follow through is important," he says. "You could have a great idea, but without the courage to follow through you won't successfully implement or carry out your creative ideas. On the other hand, if you have a mediocre idea plus the courage to follow through, you just might be successful."

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