Mere Scrap of Information

Mere Scrap of Information – The Route to the Product

I am a guy, and grew up in the 70’s.  My dad was a Vietnam Vet serving in the 7th Special Forces Group.  I grew up watching action movies.  My favorite actor of that era was Clint Eastwood, and one of my favorite movies Fist Full of Dollars.  I recall an exchange below from that movie that I know to apply to product development and design, and I will relate the story shortly.

Joe: A man’s life in these parts often depends on a mere scrap of information. Your brother’s own words.

Before World Wide Web

What we know, will have an impact on the design solution that is pursued.  I received my engineering degree in 1990, so I was at University in the 1980’s, there was no internet as there is today.  In addition to reading numerous school books, I also read product or component manuals (a few of my friends and I would get product books from Intel, Texas Instrument and Motorola).  I know, sounds pretty nerdy, but I have engineering proclivities.

University Project

Now comes the story.  As an engineering student, at least in the 1980s, we were given objectives upon which we would direct our burgeoning engineering competence.  This particular project was to design an audio amplifier that had a very specific gain, using a specific transistor (BJT) that was identified by the professor.  The constraining element, was the temperature range over which the amplifier was required to maintain this gain (amplification).  That is, the amplification requirement had to be met at a elevated temperature.  I am not going to go into the details of transistor theory, but as temperature goes up, the gain of the transistor goes down.

This was a big class; the lecture hall was large enough to hold more than 100 people and it was nearly full.  Reading those old technical industrial engineering book, happened to give me an advantage. Years prior to this project, I had read an industrial controls book, that explored the use of positive temperature coefficient (PTC) resistive devices. These industrial controls had nothing to do with audio amplifiers, but the concept of resistance increasing as temperature increases was very interesting.  A random and, at the time, seemingly meaningless, scrap of information.  A few years later, I am in this class with this challenge.

The Solution

While all of the other students were trying to find that sweet spot for the transistor biasing where the gain reduction due to temperature would still meet the design specification target, I had a short cut, courtesy of some reading years earlier, that I could not have ever predicted.  I could not have foreseen how that scrap of information then, would impact my response to this challenge.  In the end there was one unique solution (the design that adapted to the temperature) and the balance of the class had solutions that followed a similar approach (the design fit into the perfect spot that met the criteria).  The manner in which the design is met, does not matter.  The quality of the solution is in the ability of the product to meet the customer demands, as well as the ability to deliver the product quickly.

What does this mean?

The way we set about tackling the product design, is not only influenced by the scope of the project, our personal and (our team) technical prowess, but also the ability to see connections between things we know and the challenges that we have previously undertaken.  The things we have consciously or with intent set about learning, are not the only things that go into the brew of developing a new product.  From experience, engineering and product development is as much about the technical as it is the creative (and the social), how to use these laws of physics, the random other things we have learned along the way to accomplish the technical and business objective.

One can never be sure what scrap of information will help us in the development.  We can only speculate in hindsight what influences or inspires our design solution.   I have ceded 7 US patents to the companies at which I have worked over my 30-year career.  The manner in which each of these designs came to birth, was not a scripted well articulate solution at the very beginning of the design.  It was more of an organic, unscripted discussion of the problem areas, with as many questions as answers and potential ideas.  The design comes from exploration of the team members, what if, and why is it this way, questions that bring ideas and what the other team members know out to the rest of the team members.

The manner the product is developed depends upon who knows what, adjacent experiences, and the associations that the team members are able to bring to the problem statement or objective.  The experiences we retain, the questions we ask, our ability to listen and bring even more questions, and explorations to possible design solutions are all on the road to discovery and are the scraps of information that is fodder for future work.


Post by Jon Quigley