Archive for August, 2010
The world of automobiles today is radically different than it was a twenty years ago, based on several metrics. In the area of fuel efficiency, it was once an automotive maxim that if you wanted good fuel efficiency, manual transmission was clearly the best way to go. Automatic transmission was more convenient but far more wasteful of energy. Today a radically different result has been achieved, and curious observers can wonder what happened to suddenly make automatic transmissions more efficient. The answer, in a simplistic sense, boils down to the combined effect of multiple “incremental” innovations in automatic transmission design that together have propelled automobiles radically forward. In “Why do automatic transmissions now get better fuel efficiency than manuals?,” Green AutoBlog explores the changes that have turned things around so dramatically, but gradually.
In the last 25 years, there have been three major advances to automatic transmissions that have made the biggest difference in fuel economy gains: more gear ratios, lock-up torque converters and electronic controls. Lock-up converters incorporate a mechanical clutch that can hard-couple the pump and turbine when the vehicle is cruising with no transmission shifting. The clutch allows the torque converter to achieve near-100 percent efficiency. In recent years, engineers have also been able to utilize electronic controls to increase the proportion of time that the torque converter is locked, further increasing efficiency.
Those electronics have played a much bigger role than just controlling the torque converter clutch. Since the mid-1990s, engineers have integrated the management of the engine and transmission making the entire system work together. In combination with electronic throttle, spark and fuel control, engineers have been able to optimize how the engine behaves during shifts as well as during acceleration.
Since fuel efficiency is measured on standard driving cycles on a dynamometer, the engineers are able to calibrate how the throttle responds regardless of what the driver actually requests with the accelerator pedal. This way, actual vehicle response can be closer to the demands of the cycle so the transmission typically shifts at lower engine speeds. The increasing number of ratios – automatics have gone from three speeds in the early-1980s to six, seven and eight speeds today – has also allowed engineers to calibrate shift patterns that keep the engine closer to its most efficient speed regardless of vehicle speed.
Despite the mechanical efficiency advantages of manual transmissions, the transmission is controlled by the vagaries of the driver trying to follow the test protocol. The result is that in most cases, the automatic transmission can now match or beat the manual. Going forward, automatics are likely to improve even more as torque converter automatics are gradually supplanted by dual-clutch transmissions (DCT).
Sometimes innovators strike out for radical change all at once. One can imagine brainstorming teams in the 80s talking about doing away with transmissions altogether, or making them purely electronics, or coming up with entirely different systems that could improve performance. The wild ideas may elevate hopes before they are incinerated on the pyres of reality, while realistic engineers stayed focused on improving each element of the automatic transmission. The latter gave us important but arguably incremental gains, but cumulatively, they have delivered radical innovation that turns popular wisdom upside down, giving us automatic transmissions that are not only more convenient but now also more fuel efficient than manual transmissions.
There are lessons in their story for many other fields.
Design matters in innovation. Sometimes good designers and engineers working together can find ways to combine functional and decorative elements for elegant success. Sometimes two elements can be combined into one when synergy between two formerly distinct features or products can be found. Today we bring an example from Japan to illustrate this.
Toppan Printing in Japan has developed a smart label that combines holographic security with RFID technology. Holographic labels, of course, are primarily for anti-counterfeiting but also add decorative features. RFID is a utilitarian tool for adding information to packaging and products for improved tracking. Toppan has combined them here. The cool thing is that the metallic antenna needed for transmitting and receiving radio signals–normally a metallized spiral or other shape that tends to be unattractive–has become part of the aluminum metal of the metallic holographic label. This combination of two technologies with a single element uniting both in an attractive, appealing way is a good example of simplification through unification and finding synergy between technologies.
Toppan calls it the RFID Crystagram. An example of the RFID Crystagram is shown on the left below, and the act of electronically scanning the Crystagram is shown on the right.
In May 2010 I was invited to speak at a conference of WTA (the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association) about innovation lessons for the telecommunications industry from our recently published book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). Here is a condensed version of the presentation. I’ll do another Pixetell soon with some additional content.
Can’t help mentioning this: I had a technical problem with the above Pixetell and sent an email to their tech support team. I had a response within minutes. In fact, I had a phone call – the kind that takes real people using real time – and the quickly helped me troubleshoot the problem and get this post working. Wow! Miracles still happen–or at least great customer service. Love Pixetell. Great way to turn PowerPoints or whatever you have on a computer plus your voice into a recorded presentation that you can share with a URL, embed into a blog, or save as a movie. Pixetell is a product of Ontier, Inc.
Without wishing to be political, I have to say that I am worried about the future of innovation in light of “external innovation fatigue factors” that arise when government creates imposing barriers for innovators, especially for small businesses and lone entrepreneurs. As we note in Conquering Innovation Fatigue, the problem is often one of unintended consequences from well-intended actions. In the past several years, there has been an acceleration in regulatory burdens, tax burdens, and litigation risks that make starting or running an innovative business riskier than ever. Mounds of cash have been taken from the private sector and given to government agencies and large institutions for so-called stimulus or bailouts, but the real cost of such “help” is rarely considered. We see failed organizations on life support and may be happy to hear of thousands of jobs in these firms that appear to be saved, but we don’t get to see and consider the small businesses that dry up due to the money that was channeled elsewhere or that face the burden of unfair competition from failing institutions shielded from the consequences of their less competitive business models.
We see many leaders calling for even higher taxes on those who are (or would have been) most likely to create jobs and launch businesses. We see government making it more difficult and costly to obtain the energy that is literally and figuratively the fuel of our economy. We see US corporations facing burgeoning regulations regarding environmental issues, hiring practices, benefits, etc., that are not found in the nations we import from, with the natural consequence of punishing those who wish to produce in the US and motivating them to close shop here and go elsewhere. We see increased government intervention at all levels of the private sector, often favoring the large and well connected while leaving the lone innovators and start-ups in the dust, strangled with red tape and choking with uncertainty about the future. Meanwhile, property rights, including intellectual property, are increasingly in jeopardy. This is the stuff of “external innovation fatigue.” It’s been bad for years, and it’s accelerating now at a dangerous pace.
Those who wish to launch new businesses and reap the rewards of their innovation can still succeed, but need additional help and caution in moving forward and finding the right partners, business models, and approaches to reduce the risks and create lasting competitive advantage that can survive the billowing waves of external fatigue factors. We offer guidance in the book on these issues, including the need to be more holistic in pursuit of intellectual property, taking the path that we call 360-degree intellectual assets. Thinking about patents exclusively can lead to excessive costs and disappointments. I suggest reading carefully our recommendations on holistic intellectual assets and giving us a call for further guidance. Innovationedge can be reached at 920-967-0466.