Electronic Design

Cooperate To Innovate

It’s been a difficult year for innovation. Budgets are tight, and we’re all doing more with less. Many people have written about the challenges this economy creates to innovation. Others have described a longer-term innovation shortfall in the U.S. In the June cover story of Businessweek, “Innovation Interrupted,” Michael Mandel argues that we’ve seen a deficit of innovation since the late 1990s that’s partly to blame for the current economic woes.

Yet constraints often spur innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and with the array of problems facing the engineering community today, from an energy crisis to a global recession, necessity abounds. So perhaps these constraints are just what’s needed to push us to reevaluate what’s fundamentally important and inspire the engineering community to invent novel solutions to the problems around us.

So the question is not if to innovate, but how. Recent experiences suggest we need to rethink the type of innovation we pursue and look more to outside sources of innovation: our customers, our industry peers, and even our competitors. Especially in a time when fewer resources are available, this type of cooperative innovation is necessary to achieve the breakthroughs we need to solve the challenges facing us.

Compete or Collaborate?

There’s no doubt that competition spurs innovation. An open market creates powerful incentives, and the resulting innovation is most often beneficial for the user. Sometimes, however, competition creates results that do not benefit customers.

As Michael Malone from ABC News pointed out in a recent column titled “When Tech Companies War, Do You Lose?” for every winner in a technology war, there’s also a loser, and the loser’s customers are usually stuck on a dead-end platform. If you bought an HD-DVD player, you know exactly what Malone is talking about. Furthermore, intense competition can lure companies into battles over incremental gains in market share, driving them to focus on small improvements instead of breakthrough innovation.

A rising trend in the technology industry is open or cooperative innovation. As knowledge has become more widely distributed and interconnected, many companies have recognized that traditional lines of friend and foe are too simplistic. They must reevaluate the opportunity to cooperate with other companies, even those that they may also compete with.

Often called co-opetition, this form of cooperative innovation can be particularly beneficial for users as vendors bring their respective strengths together to deliver a differentiated capability. In fact, I’ve been involved in a cooperative innovation project in the test and measurement industry.

National Instruments and Tektronix are jointly developing a high-bandwidth PXI Express digitizer that will deliver unprecedented capability to the PXI platform. This project leverages Tektronix’s unique ASIC technology and high-bandwidth design experience and National Instruments’ experience in modular instruments, data streaming, and software. This collaboration will result in a product that neither company could effectively or economically develop alone.

Applying Cooperation

Many of the same dynamics present in the overall technology sector also affect our jobs in design and test engineering. Knowledge is more distributed, technology is changing rapidly, and innovation is needed to stay competitive. How can you use these trends to your advantage?

First, identify the areas where you can affect your organization. During a recent talk, Dean Kamen differentiated invention and innovation: an invention is a new idea, and an innovation is an invention that affects the world. To produce true innovation in your organization, you must understand how your job impacts others. For example, what would a reduction in test time mean to your manufacturing team? What if you could shorten the development time of a characterization system?

Second, build a network. The trend of cooperative innovation suggests that increasingly, great ideas are likely to come from outside your company and that you need a network of colleagues, industry peers, and vendors to draw from. Build relationships with your peers at competitive companies. Chances are you can both learn best practices from each other without giving away any trade secrets.

Another important network is between design and test within your company, not just because of their relationship in the product development flow, but because design engineers can learn a lot from test engineers and vice versa. For example, design engineers are often experts at simulating a system, while test engineers are great at rapid prototyping to get a system up and running. Clearly, each group could benefit from the expertise of the other.

Third, allocate some of your time and budget to try out new ideas. Do you have any pilot projects currently underway? If not, then you probably aren’t taking enough risks to discover the truly innovative things that could improve your design and testing process. A pilot is a low-investment way to try out new technology and prove it out for future deployment.

Analog Devices recently and successfully demonstrated the impact of these steps. It has implemented a common test platform for both characterization and production test of its microelectromechanical-systems (MEMS) microphone products. The company piloted the system, demonstrated results, and is now deploying it into production. Analog Devices estimates that the new system will save more than $10 million over its previous approach.

As the pace of technology increases, we’ll all be challenged to keep up. We will need to think differently about where we can turn for new ideas and how we can break down traditional boundaries between departments, between vendor and customer, and even among competitors. Cooperative innovation is one way we can keep up and prosper even in difficult times.

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