According to the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving – the Russian translation from the acronym TRIZ – a systematic process of creativity forms the foundation for innovative design engineering or product development.
These inventive principles draw on adaptive lateral thinking solutions, with re-usable methodology across industries. In revealing patterns of technical evolution, the theory is also useful for system and failure analysis. And it’s a framework that has guided the problem-solving skills of mechanical engineer Al Spence, PhD, and research lead with Niagara College’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC).
He describes it more specifically as “abstract” defensive thinking, in which he calculates the consequences of what could go wrong about a particular prototype or system when small manufacturers embark on applied research projects with his research team at the Research & Innovation division.
“I try to sit a little bit in the future … the more you can anticipate the ways not to do something, then the fewer times you will iterate,” he says, adding it’s important to not sink into negative “knee-jerk” and “can’t-do” thinking.
This creative abstract approach also pairs well with research using computer-aided design (CAD) tools – Spence’s mastery. He points out that CAD is particularly helpful in providing a clear visual for the industry partners who work with WAMIC. By offering a CAD rendering – and in many cases, an accompanying moving animation or 3D-printed model – the client is offered a high-fidelity replica of the prototype before it’s mass-produced.
Spence has had extensive experience in perfecting these design concepts. Before his arrival at NC in 2016, he had spent 23 years as a faculty member in the Mechanical Engineering department at McMaster University. With degrees in Applied Mathematics (BMath 1984), and Mechanical Engineering (MASc 1986), both from the University of Waterloo, and a PhD in CAD-based machining simulation from the University of British Columbia (1992), his specialization in metrology, CAD and manufacturing automation has led to work in the spacecraft, manufacturing, energy, textile and medical device industries.
Inside the WAMIC lab, the span of applied research projects he works on today is vast. He has been known to spend late evenings validating the functionality of a novel snow melting solution system, or developing robotic solutions for an aerospace company, or helping to engineer a prototype for a medical device to help the aging population regain mobility.
And while every day is different, and each challenge is new, Spence uses his formal design principles to re-apply solutions in a creative way to other projects.