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Digital Darwinism: Innovate or Die

A systematic approach to innovation, based on a proven methodology, can enable companies to achieve real breakthroughs. Here’s a framework called the Innovation Genome that can help.

(Manufacturing Leadership Journal – Jeff Moad: August 2017) When it comes down to it, innovation is really just constructive disruption: disrupting your business, disrupting your process, disrupting your market—but always in a quest to make something better. Whether you’re looking to innovate in your manufacturing processes or your products, the objective, of course, is to achieve specific business goals. That could be finding ways to cut costs and improve efficiency on the process side, or it could be leveraging new technologies to create new or different products for your customers.

The problem for manufacturers, like all businesses, is the innovator’s dilemma. You have an established company, a trained workforce, an installed customer base, and existing processes, but it’s hard to disrupt those things while remaining accountable to shareholders or other stakeholders. To innovate successfully, you have to be purposeful about it, and that means not only planning for innovation but also making the time, money, and resources available for it.

That may seem easier said than done. You can get so embroiled in the here and now—this quarter, this month, this week—that before you know it, a year has gone by without any purposeful innovation. That’s why following an established innovation methodology can help. As companies like Autodesk and others have found, following a systematic approach to innovation can lead to real breakthroughs that drive actionable innovation. And by incorporating or modifying one of the approaches described here, you can kick-start innovation in your manufacturing business.

Autodesk Maps Innovation’s "Genome"

One methodology that provides a framework to think big yet be productive with your ideas is the Innovation Genome (, developed by Autodesk Innovation Strategist Bill O’Connor. He and his team researched innovations spanning 3.5 million years, from crude stone hand axes to the Internet. As they searched for common characteristics among those innovations, ubiquitous patterns began to emerge—specifically, five techniques consistently used by innovators throughout time (even though they might not have been aware of them consciously).

No matter what your business is, applying the Innovation Genome starts with these five techniques:

  • Visualize the innovation environment. Start with the essential building blocks of company, customer, competition, and context. Then, draw connections, identify lines of influence, and illustrate what your innovation landscape looks like.
  • Develop innovation targets. Create powerfully crafted single sentences, each of which outlines a specific area to which you think innovation could be usefully applied. Be audacious.
  • Generate innovation ideas. Start with a specific innovation target, and apply the seven innovation questions (more on that in a moment) to generate ideas. Look for the strongest ideas or combinations of ideas possible.
  • Prioritize the innovation ideas. Decide which ideas have the greatest potential for impact so that you can focus your resources efficiently. The methodology’s scoring system—based on whether an idea is both "wild" and "worldly"—helps weed out concepts that are either not imaginative enough or impractical in the real world (or both).
  • Create innovation projects. Create specific projects to pursue the ideas you’ve prioritized; then, support those projects—and the people working on them—as they develop and head to market.

When you’re generating innovation ideas (innovation technique No. 3 above), the process calls for asking the following innovation questions:

  • Look: What could we look at in a new way or from a new perspective?
  • Use: What could we use in a new way or for the first time?
  • Move: What could we move, changing its position in time or space?
  • Interconnect: What could we interconnect in a different way or for the first time?
  • Alter: What could we alter or change in terms of design and performance?
  • Make: What could we make that is truly new?
  • Imagine: What could we imagine to create a great experience for someone?

To illustrate applying the Innovation Genome in context, consider reimagining a car engine. Starting with the existing technology, you can apply the seven innovation questions to see how a typical engine might be improved. Look at it differently and consider, what is the fundamental purpose of an engine? How could you use other processes or workflows to create the engine? Could you move the placement of the engine in a vehicle? How can you interconnect the engine to the user experience? How are you going to alter the design or performance of the engine? What new part of an engine could you make that has never been created before? And, finally, what improvements to the entire value chain for that engine can you imagine?

"Using a methodology for innovation does not preclude getting great ideas while you’re jogging or in the shower," O’Connor says. "That’s going to happen anyway. But we should also apply structured techniques like the ones we’ve developed to make sure we’re being as innovative as possible in the course of our day-to-day work."

The Innovation Genome project involved researching innovations spanning more than three million years, from crude stone axes to the Internet.

What’s great about the Innovation Genome is that it doesn’t apply any artificial boundaries—any idea is a good idea. You start wide and narrow it down to the essential idea and then determine how practical it is and how you will execute it. You leave the process with the feeling that you’re going to make a huge difference for your company, and that’s time well spent.

Innovating on Additive at the United States Air Force Academy

Autodesk isn’t the only organization that has developed a researched-based methodology to drive innovation. At the United States Air Force Academy, a group of design students recently took on the innovation task for a year-long senior capstone course ( in the Engineering Mechanics department. Faculty Advisor Captain Skyler Hilburn, along with Rich Buckley as the contractor advisor for the USAF Academy and Capstone Advisor to the capstone team, worked with those students to develop a methodology to encourage innovation in additive manufacturing (AM).

As the primary developer of the process, Captain Hilburn created a set of cards, called AM Capability Cards, which are divided into four subsections: Product Design Tools, Personal Manufacturing, Customizability, and Optimization.

Designed to get students thinking about additive manufacturing in new ways, each card briefly explains a given AM principle, with examples of the principle in action on the back. The cards are divided into subsets of methods. For example, Product Design Tools covers ideas such as combined parts, scaled testing, integrated joints, rapid prototyping, and embedded components.

"There wasn’t a comprehensive tool that says, ‘Here are the ways that you can use additive manufacturing to improve your product or at sections of the design process,’" Buckley says. "The cadets came up with a mind map that lets you apply additive manufacturing techniques at all the different phases of the design process—all the way from the ideation phase, through production, to repair and recycle."

You don’t have to apply all of the cards to each design problem. Instead, you pick what fits the idea at hand. "If they are in an early-stage design process, they’re not going to be worried about 3D printing at the point of consumption or printing obsolete parts," Buckley says. "They’re going to be worried more about doing the rapid-scale prototyping. We’ll give them the entire card deck, and they’ll go through and see which principles are applicable to the projects that they’re working on."

For example, students working with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could use the cards to think differently about parts. "UAVs tend to crash a lot and break," Buckley says. "There are two applications there: One is the rapid printing of replacement parts after the UAV has crashed, and the other is the combining of multiple functional parts into one part. For example, if you have a UAV body, traditionally you bolt on a camera to the bottom. But there’s no reason you can’t print the body with a camera inside of it."

Using cards that explain key principles, the U.S. Air Force developed an innovation methodology to encourage advances in additive manufacturing. 

“Genome Graphic

This innovation methodology works because it’s so pragmatic; anyone can adopt and execute on this approach easily. Think about what process or technology you could use to create your own Capability Cards for—maybe machining, milling, or injection molding. Better yet, consider creating cards for new technologies. With a set for generative design, you could have cards for light-weighting or aesthetics. And for machine learning, you could have cards for human-robot collaboration and automation. In a rapidly changing world, it’s great to innovate quickly in a way that is easy to learn and easy to implement.

Stanley Black & Decker Focuses on Disruption

At Stanley Black & Decker, a manufacturer of industrial tools and household hardware, Breakthrough Innovation ( teams have been helping the company remain not just competitive but at the forefront of its industry. The company set out on its breakthrough innovation journey three years ago with a desire to consistently deliver customer-centric innovation. Inspired by Silicon Valley, the Breakthrough Innovation centers operate like startups within the larger Stanley Black & Decker organization, supporting the business with a funnel of ideas that remove some of the risks inherent in innovation.

"Innovation in the core business is very process oriented," says Frank DeSantis, vice president of breakthrough innovation for the company’s infrastructure business. "There’s financial processes you have to define, business processes that are very defined. We’ve broken the mold with all of that. We work very fast. We prototype, we test it, we go out and get customer feedback, and that loop happens very quickly. Our normal innovation process could take anywhere from six to 18 months on the core business side. We’re churning through projects in about two to three months."

DeSantis and his team focus on innovation through three lenses: customer, market opportunity, and enabling technologies. When all three lenses align, they move forward with an idea. "We start with problem statements from our customers and understand what issues they’re facing throughout their business—whether it’s the tools, the service, parts, any facet of their lives," DeSantis says. "We look at large market opportunities and then try to match that up with enabling technologies that already exist or that we need to develop ourselves. We look at the next three to 10 years and how we either are going to disrupt ourselves and come up with a new product or process or potentially disrupt an industry."

In the past year, DeSantis’s Breakthrough Innovation team has looked at more than 50 projects, with three of those moving on to Stanley Black & Decker’s business unit. Because the team focuses on rapid iteration and prototyping, they learn quickly by taking risks and not being afraid to fail quickly.

"Part of our charter and our mantra is to rapidly iterate, rapidly ideate, get customer feedback very quickly," DeSantis says. "So every day we’re challenging ourselves to either shift the model that we’re doing that’s not working; infuse new technologies; meet entrepreneurs; meet startup companies; and really push that envelope of how we can do that quicker, faster and better."

Stanley Black & Decker is a great example of innovation done right in a large organization. The company not only identifies time, staff, and resources to focus on innovation but also provides direction to the innovation teams by aligning them with business units. And allowing them to function like startups—with all of the speed and agility that comes with startup culture—gives the Breakthrough Innovation teams the freedom to take risks, use new technologies, and seek out new design challenges.

Making Manufacturing Innovation Happen

Whether you call today’s manufacturing era the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Second Machine Age, or the Digital Revolution, the reality is the same: Innovation isn’t really a choice anymore. Fortunately, as the examples here show, tools and techniques are available to encourage creative thinking and establish innovation processes within your organization.

By codifying an innovation process within your business, you’re sending an important message to your employees that you value innovation and it is important work for them to do. And you’re also giving them the tools to go do it. By providing a methodology or process that helps harness the energy, excitement, passion, and creativity of the team, you’re empowering them to surface actionable outcomes. Otherwise, you’re likely to have a lot of interesting discussions that simply won’t go anywhere.

The key, of course, is to create an environment that encourages big thinking and quick action. By approaching idea generation like an agile, disruptive startup and tapping into the proven methods of past innovators, you’ll be prepared to keep up with today’s pace of innovation, which is so much faster than ever before.

Stanley Black & Decker set up Breakthrough Innovation centers in order to consistently deliver customer-centric innovations.

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