By Sarah Balles, Mechanical Engineer

As engineers, we often find ourselves under a deadline and need to be as efficient as possible. This often leads to applying a previous “tried and true” method. Why reinvent the wheel when you have a proven design right in front of you? It makes sense from the surface, but the problem is that this process doesn’t always lead to the best solution.

“Efficiency and speed should not be seen as mutually inclusive characteristics.”

Efficiency and speed should not be seen as mutually inclusive characteristics. Speed will cause us to make incorrect assumptions and overlook good ideas. We should always be striving to break away from the tried-and-true to develop new, innovative solutions where possible.

We have all heard the rationale, “we’ve always done it this way.” When we limit ourselves to proven solutions, we are choosing the safe route but not necessarily the best route. Using the legwork of other people may help initially, but it sets unforeseen limitations on your final product.

You can design the same product repeatedly making small tweaks, but eventually it might die out. The customer base may no longer be there, better materials or technology might become available, or the product will simply outdate itself. Below are some ways to help companies avoid being the next Kodak or BlackBerry.

Take the Best, Leave the Rest

Many great inventions come from a recycled design process where the new product is an upgraded version of the old one. It can be difficult to see these improvements since they happen over a long period of time and incorporate numerous iterations. Taking a step back and recognizing the progress made over years, and sometimes decades, can help to illustrate just how innovative a product truly is. It’s hard not to look at the phone industry as one of the best examples of this.

Most people would agree that 2007, the year the iPhone was announced, was a big year for the cell phone industry. A new product category was born that has come to dominate the global market and change the way we connect with each other.

Table 1. Comparison of Original iPhone and most recent iPhone 11.

We can see a different story when comparing the first and latest iPhones. They both hold similar features, look similar on the outside, and share similar fundamentals; however, they are drastically different. Table 1 shows a few of the more dramatic improvements over the past decade.

Apple continued to iterate on each iPhone design rather than changing everything at once. They weighed the pros and cons of the newest technology they put in each iPhone, maintained a constant pace of change, and have essentially designed and produced an entirely different product in everything but name.

Image Source: iPhone Life Magazine (

Beware of Technology for Technology’s Sake

Technology as a category can be one of the fastest roads to a failed product. While the allure of integrating the latest and greatest technology is strong, it must be justified. As Brian Geddes discussed in his “Machine Learning is Not Technology’s Magic Wand” article, we must be aware of the limitations of cutting-edge technology.

The best intentions can lead to frightening ramifications. As Brian discussed, the inappropriate and hurried use of machine learning for making cancer diagnosis is a prime example. In this case, the system appeared to be producing extremely reliable predictions; however, developers later discovered that the machine learning algorithms had been basing decisions partially on the name of the medical facility. It predicted that patients at a hospital with “cancer” in the name were more likely to have cancer, presumably because they had already been misdiagnosed and were seeking a specialist.

In the best of cases, the technology will be overkill for the particular application. In more serious cases, it can be dangerous to the owner or operator.

Getting Unstuck

So, how do you break out of a rut and use the right technology at the right time?

  1. Ensure you have a tight objective and supporting requirements that are well communicated and agreed upon by the team.

  2. Have a brainstorming session and include any ideas that come to mind. Don’t be afraid to include a crazy idea! Some of the best products result from wild, “irrational” thoughts.

  3. Do your research to see what is already out there. This includes supplemental technologies that can be used to develop your idea. Maybe you’ll come across a product of a similar idea and find out the reasons it worked/failed which can help streamline your design process.

  4. Voice your opinion with friends/family/coworkers/etc. Talking out loud with another person can help spark new ideas and also bring up flaws in current ideas.

  5. Be the odd one out and go against the grain of ordinary thinking. Don’t be afraid to counter someone’s opinion even if you’re the only one to do so. You might be the only one to have heard an issue/flaw or you might have the next big idea.

  6. Rinse and repeat. As new technologies come onto the market, your requirements might change, or external factors could warrant adaptive methods.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to culture and communication…does your team feel that they can voice a novel idea thats been rattling around?”

Innovation stagnates when too many limitations are imposed on a problem. Sticking with an old, proven method or tunneling into one potential solution may work, but there might be a better solution out there.

Even when you’re innovating and operating in a creative space, it is still important to document and communicate across the team. Always reflect on your work to make sure you’re abiding by a set of requirements so you identify incorrect assumptions early on. Technology is continuously and rapidly developing, so always weigh the pros and cons before using the “coolest” idea. When we get caught up in an exciting idea, it’s easy to forget that nothing happens in a vacuum. Keeping teams in line with the objective and communicating when requirements change is the best way to ensure a system is operating at its highest potential.

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