Creativity Grows on TRIZ
In 1949, Genrich Altshuller, an idealistic Soviet naval patent inspector, sent a paper he had co-authored to the Soviet premier. In it, he outlined a method of product innovation that he believed would help the Soviet Union rebuild after the twin disasters of Stalin’s first “Pogrom” and World War II. Stalin thanked the aspiring naval officer by sentencing him to 25 years in an Arctic labor camp.
Altshuller and his Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or TRIZ (pronounced “trees”) as it’s more commonly known by its Russian acronym, could easily have perished in the gulag. But he kept himself and many of his companions alive by partaking nightly of an intellectual feast, learning everything from art history to physics from his fellow prisoners.
Released in 1953 after Stalin’s death, Altshuller went on to develop his theory, which he distilled from an examination of thousands of patents. He saw that most innovation came from transposing existing technologies from one field to another, and discerned patterns and processes that he believed could be taught systematically. To speed the process, Altshuller created matrices and algorithms that could be applied across industries to solve vexing problems.
Anyone who seeks the wisdom of TRIZ can find it for free online. Sites like www.triz40.com, for example, let would-be innovators enter their two contradictory factors into an app that churns out a menu of solutions to try, under category headings like “Spheroidality,” “Periodic Action” and “Composite Materials.”
Tools like TRIZ40 are built from the notion that designers and engineers have solved many solutions in other areas. Creators just need a way to tap into the wealth of inventiveness that exists across disciplines.
“In TRIZ, this is called the principle of abstraction,” explains innovation coach David Silverstein (PDF). “We turn our real world problem into an abstract problem—so that we can then seek out an abstract solution and then convert that back into a real world solution.”
Although Altshuller firmly believed that TRIZ should be treated as a gift to the world, plenty of management consulting firms are making a brisk business out of its commercialization.
TRIZ Principles Working in Large and Small Companies
For example, Boston-based GEN3 Partners hires out its mostly Russian-based consultants to work with companies like General Electric. True to TRIZ’s tenet that solutions to most technology problems already exist in other industries, GEN3 helped GE find a solution to an MRI problem by borrowing from the radar industry.
Big manufacturing companies like GE aren’t the only ones embracing TRIZ. San Diego-based OnTech created a self-heating container that can be used as packaging for single-serving items like soup or baby formula. OnTech engineers solved technical problems with their container using a TRIZ matrix of problems and solutions. Having identified “temperature” as a problem, they landed on “use of composite materials” and “flexible shells and thin films” as potential workarounds. The engineers were soon onto a ceramic and carbon-fiber composite that did the trick: Licensing agreements with ready-to-eat food manufacturers quickly followed.
TRIZ can be applied to processes as well as it can be applied to products. Connecticut-based alternative fuels firm FuelCell Energy, for example, used TRIZ to re-engineer its manufacturing practices, garnering a 50 percent reduction in costs. Clearly, there’s potential for this Theory of Inventive Problem Solving to help all of us and the organizations we work for.
If you’ve used TRIZ to overcome your product-development challenges and improve your performance, we’d love to hear about it. Please share your stories with the CAD/CAM Performance community.
If you’d like to do some additional reading on this subject, you can review the other sources I used for this post below.
- “The World According to TRIZ”
- “Tech Innovations for Tough Times”
- “A Perpetual Crisis Machine”