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TRIZ

In 1946, a Russian Naval Patent officer, Genrich Altshuller, noticed similarities in invented solutions from different fields. He had the temerity to suggest to Stalin that he could improve inventing and was sent to a Siberian Gulag for thinking too much. Fortunately for him, the labor camp was also home to many other thinkers, including physicists, chemists, engineers and mathematicians, who helped him continue the development of his theories. After Stalin’s death and his subsequent release, he continued his research via an ‘underground University’ of like-minded scientists. Anyone could join, provided they analysed a few thousand patents!

After some 1500 person-years of research, including analysis of over 200,000 patents, Altshuller developed and refined the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, the Russian acronym for which is TRIZ (pronounced ‘trees’). What Altshuller discovered is that most patented ideas use a relatively small number of objective principles and are based on a finite number of physical, chemical and geometric effects. TRIZ is the condensation of this knowledge. He also found that 90% of problems had already been solved, often in another scientific field where the inventor lacked knowledge of these existing solutions. Another finding was that only 1% of the real inventions came from real scientific discovery (32% of inventions are from personal knowledge of the inventor, 77% are from within the company and 95% are from within the industry).

As TRIZ contains generalisations of many principles, the first step is to create a standardised abstract model of your problem that fits into one of the TRIZ models for which it can offer a generalised solution which you can then interpret for an answer to your particular problem.

All parts of a device perform functions. Whenever something happens, a function has been performed. There are primary functions, which perform the main desired effects, and secondary functions, which support the primary functions. In TRIZ, functions are either useful and hence desirable, or they are harmful effects (TRIZ can thus be thought of as removing harm).

TRIZ also asks you to think about what an ideal solution would be like (also called the principle of ideality). For example, if you have a hall where you want people at the back to hear you clearly, then an ideal solution might be where the hall itself becomes the amplifier, eliminating the need for a microphone. Although this may be considered silly, it leads to direct consideration of how the shape and surfaces of the room affect the transmission of sound. The process of removing everything that is not necessary is called trimming.

The heart of invention with TRIZ is the identification and resolution of contradictions. Indeed, Altshuller said that all inventive problems contain at least one contradiction. There are two types of contradiction: technical and physical. 

  • Technical contradictions:  A desirable function A uses a second function B which has undesirable effects, either causing a third function C which is harmful or harming an existing function D. For example, you can evenly spread light over a large car park by having a tall lamp post but this requires a high strength post to hold the large light far above the ground. A, (Distant light source) needs B (Tall strong post) which leads to C (High cost) and D (Difficult maintenance).
  • Physical contradictions: Physical contradictions occur where the two opposing physical states are required, for example a blacksmith wants the horseshoe to be hot enough so the metal is workable, but he would also like it to be cool enough to hold (the ‘harmful’ solution is to use tongs, which are not as easy to use as fingers).

Altschuller created a Contradictions Matrix, which is a large table that is used to link pairs of contradicting principles (of which he defined 39, which gives a 39 x 39 matrix) to a list of 40 common principles used in many inventions to resolve similar contradictions.

TRIZ really is serious stuff. For example a TRIZ expert walked into a big company, looked at their products, and told them what they were currently researching, the problems they were having and how they would solve them!

See also:

Value Analysis and Design, Synectics, Brainstorming

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