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Outcome Focused: From “Out of the Box” to “There is No Box”

Posted on November 13th, 2015 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

Issue or outcome? As engineers charged with the responsibility of maintaining and growing our company’s profitability through its product line, dowe focus too much on incremental improvement at the expense of breakthrough innovation? Does the necessity of addressing very real day-to-day issuesproduct deficiencies, regulatory compliance, manufacturing throughput, or competitive pressures – keep us fromstepping back and considering the outcome we could produce if we expanded our gaze? Have we reached a point where incremental improvements in the traditional processes that we use to produce the goods and services we deliver to market can no longer deliver meaningful returns?

 

What prompted this question for me was a fascinating TED talk given by Neri Oxman entitled, Design at the Intersection of Technology and Biology where she describes the cutting edge work her team is doing at the intersection of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology. While her discussion approaches the topic more from the design standpoint – objects created by nature and those created by man – it forced me to think about our modern manufacturing processes and how the necessity of discrete parts and assemblies forces us to use particular methods. You can use the link above to watch this engaging presentation on TED or through embedded YouTube below. Either way, it will be 18 minutes of your life well spent.

I was immediately struck by Ms. Oxman’s assertion that “tools have consequences” and how the rigors of manufacturing and mass production dictate how we as engineers break down our intended product into discrete pieces meeting not only the constraints of what we need but how we can produce it. How our ability to produce products both efficiency and effectively guides us to the manufacturing capabilities, machines, and lines we already have. How materials are chosen not only by the function and form they must provide but also by our ability to produce them.

In her presentation, Ms. Oxman points to a confluence of four fields making now the time for this revolution: computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology. While advances in biology might be further afield for the average product or manufacturing engineer, there is a developing world of opportunity considering the other three. In particular, I was struck with the advancements in 3d printing not only from the size of what could be produced, but also by the resolution. Having the ability to vary the performance of materials – stiffness or hardness for example – by how they are printed offers the opportunity to eliminate sub structures in assemblies, simplifying and streamlining their manufacturing and reducing the overhead and cost of managing the bill of material throughout the product lifecycle.

What struck me the most though was that for all the examples she presented, the focus was on the outcome, not the issues. Whether the single piece cape and skirt for a fashion show, the acoustic sound absorbing chair, or life sustaining clothing, the starting point was the desired outcome. Thinking functionally – I need a method to control the flow rate of a fluid – rather than about components – I need a pump – enabled Ms. Oxman’s team to consider a broader range of alternatives with amazing accomplishment. While not all of us have the latitude for clean sheet thinking all the time, there is always room for thinking functionally for better outcomes.

Tell me about your experience – what led to your best inspirational moment? How has your company taken advantage of advancements in materials, additive manufacturing, or computational design? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

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