COFES 2008

Attending the COFES 2008 (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software) conference has been a nice surprise. For one thing, the event is being held at the beautiful Scottsdale Plaza Resort near Phoenix, Arizona. Think bright blue skies, hot sunny days, and unusual fauna such as the bottle brush tree, which has what looks like thousand of red, bristly bottle brushes hanging from its branches.

For another thing, the event is way more intellectually oriented than are most trade shows. That sounds boring, but is in fact, quite inspiring. Here are a few of the things I have seen and heard, in no particular order: Karl Ulrich from the Wharton School of the Univ. of Pennsylvania gave a talk that could have easily been titled: Quantifying innovation. He qualifies extreme innovation as something that makes a lot of $$ and gave the example of the Oral B toothbrush, which has the largest market share in the world of any toothbrush. The company used what is called a "tournament structure" to come up with the best design: designers generated hundreds of ideas; the company made models of the best 50 and tested them with consumers. Out of this came the best five. The company tested these thoroughly in the lab using mirrors to watch participants brush their teeth from every angle. The winner was the now widely known brush with a co-molded handle.

Pixar used the same method to pick a movie to make. The company got 500 one-sentence pitches and out of these picked the best, "A hot-rod racecar gets waylaid in the desert and finds the meaning of friend and family." This resulted in the movie Cars. He also says tournaments are not always needed. A good example is the problem, "What should a roof beam look like in engineering software?" This problem and others like it only take one or two passes to solve. Ulrich says Six Sigma is the wrong logic for innovation because it aims to produce the same thing the same way every time. Instead, it is better to think of innovation statistically using the tournament framework to:

-- Take more draws from a larger distribution

--Shift the mean of the quality of ideas upwards

--Increase the variance in the qualities

--Increase accuracy in evaluating opportunities

In one case, this method produced a money-making idea from an Indian doctor -- that of brokering "medical tourism" for semi-elective surgery.

Coming soon: A new RP format that replaces STL

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