Current trends are changing future innovation

Today, any one can innovate, from anywhere. Mouser Electronics explains the technology that is behind this new landscape of ideas.

Many factors are contributing to a modern transformation in the way innovation happens – new tools and resources available to innovators, new business models that help turn good ideas into viable products, and industry recognition that not all products have to be based on proprietary research. The result is a climate of more open innovation that is accelerating the development of new ideas and turning innovation into a global activity. More people from more walks of life and regions of the world are becoming creators.

Key drivers of open innovation

1. More open idea sharing
The ability to collaborate is a key factor in innovation, but so is the willingness to collaborate. For many innovators, collaboration becomes the fastest and best way to test ideas and make necessary connections. Social media and collaboration tools are collapsing barriers to communication and changing the way people work around the world. Michael Parks, co-founder and senior vice president of engineering and design at US- based embedded electronics design studio and security research group Green Shoe Garage, described it in this way: “Teams that are distributed around the globe have a unique advantage in that their business never closes. Someone, somewhere, is always innovating and refining product. Furthermore, the product stands a better chance of being adopted globally since localised needs stemming from cultural and economic differences can be considered during the design process itself.”

2. Accelerated idea testing and prototyping
Collaboration plays a role not only in helping creators quickly validate ideas but also in helping them identify the right resources to develop their ideas into a product. One key to successful idea development is speed. Markets move fast, requiring creators to develop and prove their ideas while commercial opportunities exist. Financial backers want to see whether an idea will succeed or fail as quickly as possible so that they can decide whether to offer additional support or move on to other opportunities. Creators must build and test prototypes quickly to validate design strategies and improve them, if necessary.

Today’s creators have many resources available to them that accelerate building, testing, and refining prototypes. Bob Martin, senior staff engineer at Microchip Technology, explained how these resources work together to accelerate design refinement: “Rapid prototyping that can be done by snapping together modules, combined with 3D printing, means creators are not having to wait weeks for machining or tooling. They can assemble something quickly and get immediate feedback. It’s really tightening the loop. Speed and modularity are making big changes.”

The affordability and accessibility of desktop manufacturing tools such as 3D printers, printed circuit boards (PCBs), milling machines, and laser cutters are making it possible for more innovators to seriously pursue their ideas.

“Even if you can’t afford to purchase the equipment, you can take advantage of numerous emerging online electronic and mechanical manufacturing companies that will take your design files and produce PCB or 3D printed parts at very reasonable costs and turnaround times,” said Parks.

3. Hardware acceleration
Hardware acceleration is a critical innovation enabler for several reasons. One is that component manufacturing has become a global industry, offering more choices
and more specialised players. Innovators now have many price and performance options, but logistical challenges that are difficult for ordinary mortals to overcome have cropped up as well.

Hardware accelerators have knowledge that can help address these challenges. They can help wade through all the resources, tools, and kits that are out there. They have access to resources innovators may not know exist. Maybe a maker is wondering how to fund a $100,000 injection mould, but someone may know somebody who can cut a mould for a fraction of that cost. An accelerator can’t reveal what other customers are doing, but they may know that customers have had trouble with a particular evaluation kit or supplier.

Martin emphasised the value of a hardware accelerator, especially for start-ups. “As a single entrepreneur or small company, there are logistics that you’ll find nearly impossible to take care of yourself,” he said. “Maybe the best supplier is in Asia. You can’t afford to fly to China every week. You should focus on what you’re trying to do and take advantage of the tribal knowledge that accelerators offer.”

Hardware acceleration is a rising force in the world of technology innovation that can speed up productisation and reduce costly mistakes along the way.

Different communities are opened up to innovation

The future of innovation

A more open, global innovation-to- productisation development cycle is already changing the way innovation happens. More people from non- engineering disciplines are becoming technology creators, and valuable innovations are arising from more remote areas of the world. These trends are further accelerating the speed of innovation through idea sharing and additive technology advancement.

1. Who will be the creators of the future?
You don’t have to be an engineer to become a creator, and this trend is likely to continue. Parks sees everyone as a potential innovator. “Decades ago, the personal computer gave rise to desktop publishing; today, it is giving rise to desktop manufacturing. That is helping grow innovators from the masses,” he said. This will increase open sharing and expanded use of open source models, such as Microsoft’s embrace of Linux or Tesla’s open sourcing of certain key electronic vehicle patents. Parks also sees this trend being a force in the localisation of innovation. “With the continued expansion of the internet and a growing realisation of the need for localised manufacturing for environmental and socioeconomic reasons, we will see innovation coming from anyone who wants to contribute, not just those who can afford to contribute,” Parks said.

Many see innovation coming from people of many different backgrounds said John Teel, founder of Predictable Designs.

“In the past, most innovation has come from engineers. Now, innovation is open to anyone with an idea.” It’s also possible for people with certain kinds of technical expertise to translate that knowledge into other kinds of innovation. Joshua Lifton, co-founder and president of Crowd Supply, sees new innovation opportunities opening up for non-hardware technologists. “There are millions of software developers, but fewer hardware developers,” he said, noting that the common programming language Python is showing up in hardware as MicroPython, IronPython, and CircuitPython. “Suddenly, microcontrollers are beefy enough to run a Python interpreter. This trend will enable software engineers to enter the hardware space,” Lifton said.

2. The power of regional innovation
As entrepreneurial innovation opens up to widely dispersed communities of curious people and problem solvers, where new innovations come from and where new products are manufactured will change dramatically. Localisation of innovation will drive products designed to solve regional problems. These are likely to include products that larger corporations could never profitably develop themselves. Teel sees this in the kinds of designs that cross his desk.

“People innovate in the areas they understand or that affect them. In the United States, innovations often involve an Internet of Things device. People from various parts of Africa contact me with product ideas related to power generation. Already we see different innovations from different parts of the world,” he said.

Parks believes that this local innovation trend will extend to manufacturing.

“Instead of manufacturing products in one place and shipping them around the globe, designers will share designs around the world. Local innovators will tailor the designs
for their local market, and then manufacture the product using local resources,” said Parks.

3. The changing role of established enterprises
Increasingly, innovation is moving beyond the confines of corporation- funded research. Therefore corporations will need to have stakes in this new game of open innovation. Some corporations are joining business groups that provide venture capital and resources to innovators. Others make their products available at low cost to innovators working on prototypes. Some are actively becoming hardware accelerators.

The tools that make innovation possible are increasingly available, but the talent pool of people who can use those tools to their fullest potential is not growing nearly as fast. Parks notes that corporations need to find a way to develop and attract talent. “Corporations will become more involved in training people to accelerate specific products. It’s the ‘teach a man to fish’ versus ‘give the man a fish’ paradigm,” he explained.

4. Acceleration of innovation and productisation
Some people predict that the end of Moore’s Law will slow new innovation, but tools and resources that are making a more open, global approach to innovation possible will defy technical stagnation. The fact is, innovation is accelerating. Innovation for the masses is also making new business models possible, not only for services that target innovators, such as hardware accelerators, technology incubators, and prefabricated component manufacturers, but also new models for bringing products to market.

Lifton points out that this new age of innovation creates lucrative opportunities for niche products serving niche markets, which can have a big impact on the way creators approach the productisation of their innovative ideas.

“Many creators don’t realize that a niche market is actually a much better place to be,” Lifton said. “Niche markets tend to be well connected through social media. From a marketing perspective, it’s way more efficient than a mass-market product that requires costly ramp-up, with expensive marketing and volume manufacturing.” This niche market dynamic also works for regional or local innovations designed to fill regional and local needs.

It’s difficult to predict the future, and, by nature, innovation creates the basis for its own transformation, but current trends show innovation changing from a discipline shrouded in secrecy to a movement that is more visible and public.

“Innovation is not something best left in the hands of engineers. We’re just a limited set of people with limited ways of seeing things. If you open innovation to the entire world, there are just so many more possibilities,” said Teel.

Reprinted with permission by Mouser Electronics.

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