As companies grow, it can be increasingly difficult to be flexible and stay innovative. Often, engineers are split between day-to-day obligations. As a result, special projects to keep up with innovation get pushed aside or are done poorly. To avoid this trend, Festo created a unique employee development program 11 years ago. The bionic learning network challenges and improves the engineer’s knowledge and abilities. As a bonus, the technology from these projects often makes it into new products. With the skills gap steadily growing, companies could use development programs such as this one to better their employees and products. Here are some key points and goals from that program:
- Work in Small Groups
Big corporations can become slow to innovate because there are too many people involved or too much red tape. By selecting small groups and giving them a place and the freedom to tinker, companies can enable projects to iterate faster. Plus, they don’t have to be afraid of failing. Companies, and teams, must have self-confidence, courage to fail, patience, and a high frustration and risk tolerance. A small group with freedom is more flexible and can move quickly toward innovation and new ideas. In addition, it can leave the majority of the company’s team to continue running day-to-day operations and push toward more mass-production goals.
- Find Inspiring Role Models
Companies like Festo have found inspiration in nature and animals, while others may have an inspiring leadership, such as Apple or Space X. Either way, the small group needs inspiration. This gives the employees a motivation to work hard. If this is just another project for them to do so they can collect a paycheck, there won’t be much innovation.
Showing off cooperative behavior in ants, these bionic ants have autonomous decision making. There is no leader, but goals are accomplished as a group. At any point in time any of the ants might take a lead as communication is exchanged and more effective ways are found in accomplishing tasks. Also, the same piezoelectric actuator technology in the ant’s legs can be found in Festo’s piezovalves. (Courtesy of Festo)
- Get Started Quickly and Easily
This is a broad goal that can lead to many things. First, you need to list the basics of what has to happen to make the project work and the easiest and fastest proof of concept. In college, my professor often said: “Lab equipment is fine, but what are you trying to figure out?” After a quick discussion, we replaced some equipment with rubber bands, torque wrenches, and, of course, either duct tape and/or WD-40.
Once you have a proof of concept, prototyping time can be reduced with the right environment and tools. Having access to 3D printing, CNC machines, and a garage of random parts can be handy. This may be why many of the extremely productive tinkerers I’ve met tend to keep their shops bursting with random parts and broken widgets. They aren’t trying to fix the broken widgets. They are using them for easy access to the guts inside without having to wait on Amazon or take a trip to Home Depot.
- Incubate Ideas
Make sure the group stays active and doesn’t focus on any one thing too much. Put several irons in the fire. Continuously think of new ways of solving the same problems and weigh the benefits and costs. In physics, we can see how things interact with each other. Multiple ideas are needed to prevent tunnel vision that might make the team miss a better solution.
- Pursue Several Goals Simultaneously
Expanding from point No. 4, features or goals of projects are intertwined. So don’t isolate them. If you reach one goal at a time, you may find you need to alter the solution due to a demand downstream.
- Always Hone
By constantly zooming in and out of a design, you can make multiple changes per iteration. Ultimately, the more changes you make between iterations, the better and faster you can get to a finished product. For example, the Dragon Fly project went through six iterations over a year and a half. Eventually, weight was reduced to 1.75 grams and it was able to fly with 13 degrees of freedom.
This is a flying example of control. Not only can the BionicOpter—inspired by dragonfly flight—control each wing’s individual thrust, but it controls the intensity it thrusts. To offer the control in such a small space it was a challenge as was finding a lightweight efficient way to execute it. The more energy it takes to position and thrust each wing one stroke greatly limits how long the BionicOpter can fly.
- Make Achievements Visible
Engineers often build, invent, and innovate. However, we often don’t seem to promote it. Maybe a certification or more efficient valve doesn’t make a good YouTube video, but I’m sure the employee will show it with pride to her/his friends and family. Some companies don’t promote their engineers because they worry that someone might try to steal their employees. However, I think lifting up the accomplishments of engineers could promote loyalty and brand recognition. In addition, young engineers have something to be inspired by and might look to a company that promotes its engineers as a good place to work.
A pneumatic Bionic Handling Assistant inspired by an elephant’s trunk was developed faster with 3D printing. The complex flow of fluid through the device would have taken much longer to develop with any other manufacturing process. Projects like this not only find out-of-the-box solutions but find out-of-the-box process as well.
- Focus on the Why
Finally, put the focus on “why.” If you focus on the “why,” the “what” and “how” will be found quickly. If all you do is a fun project without being able to tie it to a reason, you might spend a lot of energy without seeing any gain. Here are two goals that Festo achieved:
Bettering production: For example, why build a pneumatic elephant trunk? It would provide a more flexible gripper arm with more degrees of freedom and it might also work as a Cobot.
Bettering employees: Why build a flying dragonfly, for instance? It will increase the engineers’ knowledge of how to design the most efficient design that might help her/him produce future products that consume less energy.
In the last 11 years, the Festo program has produced over 40 projects. Working with small groups in a large company brings innovation and flexibility that can lead to higher productivity, lower cost, and increased energy efficiency in products.
At a time when employees are being stretched thinner than ever and asked to do more with less, perhaps we need a break from the daily grind to play with some fun innovative products. By doing so, we could better our engineering abilities and help the company.