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Experimentation is the Heartbeat of Innovation

Posted on June 12th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

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Every new product and every new process begins life as an idea. Someone, somewhere, believes that they can create something better than what already exists. Every innovation is the realization of someone’s imagination.
The interesting part is how the idea moves from being stuck inside someone’s head, to existing in the real world. A lot of the time the harsh realities of the world we live in are more than enough to stop an idea dead in its tracks. As it moves from its Utopian paradise into our commercial, physical and pressured world, there are plenty of obstacles to navigate. Most ideas simply don’t make it.

Because so many ideas don’t survive the transition, it’s important to find out which have the strength to make it as early as possible. And so, one of the most important tasks for anyone involved in developing new products or new ideas is to experiment. Finding out in the first few weeks through careful experimentation that our idea isn’t going to make it is no bad thing. That would certainly be much better than running a full development program, reaching the end with a product ready to go and thousands or millions of dollars spent, before finding out it’s all been for nothing.

Start With A Hypothesis

Every good experiment begins with a hypothesis. In the case of creating or developing a new product, that hypothesis perhaps seems quite clear. But as engineers and technical focused people, sometimes it’s tempting to jump too far ahead with our initial hypothesis. We need to begin with a hypothesis about the main factors that would make our idea successful or not (which may not be technical at all – even though the technical aspects will also be critically important). Usually, the best starting point is to form a hypothesis about the market we’re thinking about launching our product or idea into.

“We think X people will pay Y dollars for Z outcome/benefit”

If that’s our starting point and it turns out that we’re right, we already have a bounded problem statement to work within. That’s the main reason I advocate starting out by focusing on the outcome or benefit our clients or customers will experience, rather than on the technology or product we’ll deliver to them. Ultimately we’re delivering an enhanced capability, a reduced cost or some other benefit to our customers, so keeping that as a central focus right from the beginning is important.

Test And Repeat

Once we have an initial hypothesis about something that will either make or break our idea, the next step is to test it. We need to come up with an experiment which will validate or invalidate our hypothesis. In almost every case, there will be some information we can collect which shows whether or not we’re right. That might mean looking at competitors’ products, talking to customers, running simulations or models or doing something else. The specifics will depend on what your hypothesis is. But every experiment should be quick. The idea is to validate the hypothesis as quickly as possible so you can take the next step.

Once the hypothesis has been validated (or not), a new hypothesis can be drawn. And then another experiment devised and run. And so the process continues, with every cycle giving a little more insight as to whether the idea is able to withstand execution in the real world.

If this is the heartbeat of an innovation program, by the time a product is developed and launched, the outcome is already known. Through experimentation like this we’ll never reach the end, with all of the sunk costs that brings, with a doubt as to whether this is going to be worth it.

Experimentation like this is the best way to weed out the ideas that don’t really stand a chance, and to ensure you invest in only those that will make it.


 

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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