Machine Design

What’s new?

In the engineering and investing worlds, there is confusion about the meaning of “innovation” and “invention.” The trend is to consider an invention as a new creation, and an innovation as a variant of an existing product or process. Unfortunately, dictionaries don’t help much. Many definitions of “innovation” readily reduce to “making something new,” which sounds much like the definition of “invention.”

Linguistic quibbles aside, the distinction between invention as “new” and innovation as “improved” is important from a business point of view. For example, many years ago, Jon Hirschstick, who later started SolidWorks, founded a company called Premise. Its product, DesignView, introduced on the Microsoft stage by Bill Gates at the Windows 2 launch, was a novel conceptual 2D design tool. Companies loved the demo, but none bought the software. When he later sold the company at fire-sale terms, Hirschstick said, “Never again will I try to sell a product to manufacturers that has not already been included on their lineitem budgets.”

In contrast, Hirschstick pitched Solid- Works software as an improvement to existing feature-based packages. The company became successful and was later acquired by Dassault Systèmes.

This is an object lesson on the theme of invention versus innovation. The story supports the view that it is easier to succeed with an improvement than with something completely new.

What does this mean to working engineers? A commonly cited aphorism says, “You can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.” Many people miss the irony of the last words: The arrows come from your own team, not from the bad guys out in front of you.

Therefore, if you are attempting to introduce a new device or process, be sure to lay the groundwork carefully. Educate potential customers and show them why it is in their interest to use the new tool. Engage opinion leaders whose approval and thoughts are sought by others. Also make sure management supports the change. Nothing kills an initiative faster than a thumbs down from management.

The idea that innovation can be more promising than invention for businesses (using the common distinction between the terms) is just a starting point. It is also important to manage innovation. Most programs try to create an atmosphere that welcomes novelty and evaluates it fairly, rather than rejecting it out of hand. Other programs monitor, measure, control, and encourage R&D processes.

So, what’s new with you? And is it better?

Joel Orr
(650) 336-3937


© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.