Electronic Design

Innovating Through Tough Times

What do Hewlett-Packard, FedEx, and CNN have in common? Believe it or not, these companies were founded during difficult economic times (1939, 1973, and 1980, respectively). What about product innovations like Nylon and the iPod? You guessed it. They were also developed and released in weak economies (1935 and 2001). It turns out that these examples aren’t anomalies. Adversity can help spur innovation.

I’ve been researching this phenomenon to understand what lessons it may hold for us facing the challenges of the current global recession. It is clear that innovation is the lifeblood of high-tech companies. And when I refer to innovation, I don’t just mean lightning-bolt ideas that only happen in a research lab. I mean the ideas that all of us—test engineers, design engineers, and researchers alike—apply to improving the processes and products that we work on every day. In these tough economic times, innovation is important not just to keep your companies competitive but to keep you competitive as well.

But how do you innovate in a time when resources are scarce and the business world has collectively become risk averse? I use the term “lean innovation” to describe the type of innovation that is most effective with these constraints. I believe there are three key attributes of successful lean innovation: doing more with less, proving it, and leveraging networks.

In the past, you may have had a fully staffed design team with a digital engineer, an analog engineer, a mechanical engineer, and a software developer. Now, it may only be you. You will need to be able to apply your domain expertise across multiple engineering disciplines to prototype a design or build a test system.

Therefore, I expect to see more engineers designing at a system level, or what is more commonly called graphical system design. This approach abstracts the implementation details that have typically required more specialized skills. For example, many different applications can benefit from the wide availability and high performance of FPGAs.

FPGAs can run measurement algorithms to improve the performance of a test system and control loops for very high-performance embedded control. What is increasingly needed, however, are software tools that can give domain experts access to this capability without requiring them to learn specialized design tools. These system design tools give individuals and small teams the ability to build complex systems.

It’s going to be hard to get an idea funded in these conditions without first proving its impact. Perhaps you want to try a new technique like parallel testing to lower test times. You know this will ultimately improve throughput and thus lower cost, but how do you get funding to spend the money and resources needed to achieve this cost savings?

With graphical system design software, you can quickly develop a prototype of the system to show initial results and lower risk. Whether it’s a test system or a new product concept, ideas accompanied by a prototype are more likely to get funded.

It turns out that breakthrough innovation doesn’t come out of the blue. According to Andrew Hargadon, author of How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, innovation more often creates value from the network it brings together.

For instance, Hargadon argues that the success of the Apple iPod isn’t so much its slick design, but rather how it assembled a network of hardware, software, and content in a way that its competitors still haven’t matched. When resources are tight, there is another reason to reach out to the network: with fewer resources, you need to find elements to reuse.

When you use a software tool with a well-established user community, you tap into an entire ecosystem of third-party tools, intellectual property, and developers that you can use to get to a solution in less time with less expense. My company’s flagship development tool, LabVIEW, has a strong ecosystem including more than 70,000 online community members, connectivity to over 10,000 third-party devices, more than 300 third-party add-ins, and thousands of application examples to get an application up and running quickly.

As a design or test engineer, you’re responsible for creating new product ideas or engineering changes to processes and systems to drive the success of your company. While the temptation might be to hunker down in 2009, I encourage you to embrace lean innovation. To do so, however, you’ll have to do more with less, prototype your idea quickly, and maximize reuse through the network to get your idea resourced or funded.

In fact, you need to pursue innovation in this time frame, not just for your own survival, but for a higher purpose as well. Ultimately, it will not be bankers, lawyers, or politicians that lead us out of this crisis. It will be scientists and engineers that break through our energy challenges, solve important healthcare issues, or create the next great product that will once again get our global economy on solid footing.

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