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Innovation Centers Help Engineers Compete

Image courtesy of Altair.

Image courtesy of Altair.

An innovation center’s job is to come up with new products, or new and better ways of making the old products. Innovation sounds a bit like research, but it’s different, says ETA’s Akbar Farahani: “When you are talking about innovation, you are talking about new ideas for solving current problems, or improving the current methodologies. That’s a major difference between an innovation center and a research center such as at a university. Research centers can have a lot of abstract ideas that are way, way ahead of their time, whereas an innovation center is looking for the near-term solutions to current problems.”

But the difference between the two isn’t always easily discernable. Around 15 years ago, ETA pioneered a technology it called the Virtual Proving Ground (VPG). The idea was to replace very expensive real-world testing of automobiles with much cheaper computer simulation. (Editor’s Note: Read more about VPG at deskeng.com/de/vpg)

“When we came up with the Virtual Proving Ground,” says Farahani, “we felt it was a huge, huge breakthrough. We thought we were solving a current problem of product design and development for the auto industry, but we were six or 10 years ahead of everybody else.”

In other words, it’s only been in the past two or three years that VPG has started gaining serious traction in the automotive industry.

What’s an Innovation Center?

Ask 10 people what an innovation center is or does, and you’ll get 10 different answers. An innovation center can be anything from a cubicle to a building, and comprise anywhere from a single person to dozens of people. Innovation centers are usually focused on a particular product or process, or associated with a particular technology, such as 3D printing, finite element analysis (FEA) or shape optimization.

For example, MakerBot — acquired last year by Stratasys — is opening innovation centers in colleges and universities across the country, from State University of New York to the College of the Ouachitas in Arkansas. The idea is to provide students and, via the school, local businesses with easy access to 3D printing technology and see where it leads.

As you might expect, a MakerBot innovation center features lots of 3D printers, 3D scanners, and the computers to run them, but not all innovation centers are so recognizable. Most look just like any other room or building.

Consider an innovation center working to redesign a structure for weight reduction. “When you look at it, you’re not going to see the innovation,” says Altair’s Royston Jones. “When you look at it, you just see people and desks and machines. But they’re doing different stuff.”

Exactly what that stuff is depends on the group’s goals.

Outside Expertise

Do you need an outside company or agency, someone like MakerBot or Altair, to help you set up an innovation center? How about just doing it yourself? Commandeer a room, stock it with some engineers and product managers, and give them the freedom to innovate. “You can do that,” says Jones. “Some companies will do that. But I think there’s a lot to be said about trying to get other DNA into your gene pool. OEMs increasingly realize that they don’t have all the answers inside, and can’t always generate innovation from inside.”

The particular expertise you bring into your innovation center will, of course, depend on what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you looking for help with shape optimization, 3D printing, advanced simulation analyses or maybe just basic engineering and design?

Outside Agendas

Back in the day, before restructuring and downsizing left many large companies somewhat thinned out, they generally carried all the engineering knowledge they needed, says Craig Winn of Applied Technology Integration (ATI). “They had the expertise. They had hundreds — or thousands — of engineers,” he adds. “Today, more and more of these companies’ engineering departments are doing project management as opposed to serious engineering.”

Increasingly, engineering expertise is coming from outside. “Our engagement with the customer has changed quite a bit in the last three to five years,” says Winn. “We’ve gone from making a few drawings or doing an analysis, to helping them develop concepts for manufacturable designs that meet their parameters.

Of course, outside companies will have their own agendas.

“In automotive,” says Winn, “we used to lean heavily on the supply base to design and develop the hardware. But if you’re a supplier of some kind of large cast part and you’ve got a large casting plant, the concepts you’re going to create are going to help you to fill your capital equipment, to keep your plants running. That limits the solution set.”

The innovation center should typically be neutral to technology and capital, Winn points out.

“When we set up an innovation center with a company, we have no preference for how the part ought to be manufactured, because we have no plant,” he explains. “We’re a service, not a manufacturer.”

My Place or Yours?

When you’re working with outside companies, where the innovation center is located is key. Winn advocates a physical and psychological break from the everyday.

“We do it both ways,” says Winn, “but more often, we use our facilities. Loading my people into the customer site is doable, but if you’re trying to innovate, you typically get better results by taking it outside of your mainstream, whether it’s offsite at your building down the street or [an external] innovation center’s building. The customer putting his project leader in my building with a team of my people is probably going to get a better result than me putting my people with his project leader in his building.

“If we work at his facility, we become part of his rhythm and routine — including the phones, distractions, trips to the coffeepot, discussions of bowling scores, and all the stuff that goes on in a typical office,” he adds. “I think the innovation center really needs to be at a separate site.”

The innovation center might even be more of a network, with some people here and others over there. “Ten years ago,” says Winn, “customers were bothered if we were 30 miles away. Now we’re working with customers on the East and West coasts, in Canada, in Italy. It’s not a big deal to the younger managers. It doesn’t bother them.”

Paving the Way

Where this innovation gets integrated into your normal design and development process depends on your needs and constraints but, generally speaking, the earlier the better. The greatest potential for change — be it weight savings or shape optimization — occurs early on in the design process.

“All we’re doing then is delivering a design,” says Altair’s Jones. “How we produce the design is generally not that interesting to the program, and the program is generally using a different toolset. All they want is great design input. But the future, going forward, is going to be about getting these programs to use this type of innovation technology themselves. Ultimately, you’d be wanting to have these innovation tools within the existing, established design process.”

ETA’s Farahani agrees: “For me, an innovation center is [for developing] strategy and problem-solving that we can not only benefit from in the near-term, but which also paves the way to use that technology for the long-term.”

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About Mark Clarkson

Contributing Editor Mark Clarkson is Desktop Engineering's expert in visualization, computer animation, and graphics. His newest book is Photoshop Elements by Example. Visit him on the web at MarkClarkson.com or send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.