Innovation: Old Often Becomes New

Originality is overrated. Engineers are often told in engineering schools that a good design typically consists of 45% duplication, 45% slight modification and 10% originality. Those who follow this principle benefit from the experience of their predecessors. Their designs tend to work. That is the way it should be.

We think the 10% originality might be a little too high. Engineering tends to be expensive and slow. For many manufacturers, the engineering efforts involved in bringing something to market often become the bottleneck in the process. This is the case whether in designing the product or the process to produce it cost-effectively. Sales people often go out and pick up orders for something, having to later tell the customer that the engineers haven’t yet worked everything out.

Let’s take the example of the compressed air car. In the highly competitive car industry, it is being touted by many as the next big thing in car manufacturing. India’s largest carmaker, Tata Motors Ltd., is preparing to roll out a line of compressed air cars in 2008. These cars are expected to go about 100 km on a charge of air that costs about 1 euro or $1.50 and takes 2 to 3 minutes to fill up. You’d have a hard time buying a hot dog or a cup of coffee at that price.

Compressed air cars produce zero emissions, contain no fuel that can catch fire or spill and are cheap to make and run – getting 50,000 km on an oil change. Search “compressed air car” and you’ll get several pages of hits. But they are not new. Search “compressed air locomotive” and you’ll see what we mean.

Since the 1800s, thousands of compressed air locomotives have been produced for mainly the same reasons: cheap, safe, easy to fill and run, low maintenance and zero emissions. Most of these locomotives ended up in mines where miners couldn’t survive if there were toxic exhaust emissions.

Today’s cars and yesterday’s locomotives also share the same main drawback. A charge of compressed air doesn’t contain much energy compared to fossil fuels. The old locomotives didn’t go very far which was okay in the mines where these heavy beasts only needed to move a few carloads of ore for short distances. They weren’t able to compete with coal or oil fired steam locomotives that traveled between cities and across countries.

Most of the original engineering in the new compressed air car deals with finding ways to keep the weight as low as possible, while using every little bit of available energy as efficiently as possible. The mining locomotives needed to be heavy to give them enough traction to pull heavy loads whereas the cars are coming in at a miserly 330 kg (725 pounds).

Don’t get us wrong, we appreciate how difficult the job is to engineer these car weights down and efficiencies up. The point we are trying to make is that the cars are more likely to succeed because these issues are known and obvious in light of the historical experiences. The carmakers can focus their efforts as they have been doing on overcoming the longstanding issue of range relative to costs.

Tata is likely to have its car in production long before and at a much lower cost than let’s say: the hydrogen fuel cell car. Several billion dollars have been spent worldwide pioneering the development of fuel cell technologies since the first fuel cell vehicle was built in 1959 – a 20 horsepower tractor. There was no fuel cell vehicle experience to build upon. These expensive engineering efforts are not likely to end anytime soon. Recent hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius that use a combination of well-established technologies and designs have already eclipsed fuel cell powered cars.

From a marketing point of view, you need to discount the past. People are not interested in things that look like leftovers. People tend to be interested in things being new and “innovative.” Or at least new to them. No one likes feeling cheated by finding out that what they thought was new and original is in fact yesterday’s news. Except maybe the investors who don’t mind profiting from proven technologies.

So where does that leave the innovator? The answer depends on how success is measured. If commercial success is the main driver, that entails making sure the engineering design is likely to work. Sooner rather than later. Cost-effectively.

So which approach is more likely to get there, the tried and true or something highly original? We recommend the tried and true as much as possible because it is just that: tried and true.

Please comment and share your experience with us.

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