The Next Wave of Innovation is a Game of Blocks

Consider all that has to happen to fulfill the promise of a new piece of technology—a treadmill that lets users talk to it to change the speed, for instance, rather than force them to fumble with the buttons while running. First, the equipment designers might consider incorporating voice-recognition technology into the product. Plenty of startups promote this new software—for phones, gaming consoles, automotive entertainment systems—but already, finding the right solution with the right user interface that works with a piece of hardware like a treadmill dredges up all sorts of design dilemmas. Not to mention the potential risks associated with recording a user's voice or misunderstanding a command. There is the question of coupling third-party software applications with core software and hardware and then integrating the complete solution and connecting to other devices and the cloud. What type of microphone should be used? How can the product be manufactured to be water-resistant? What if the system vibrates? How does one determine, develop, and perform system-level tests in production?

While innovation has several aspects, the feasibility and viability of a concept is very challenging to understand without the right context. The only way to remove the risk of unknowns is to try out the concept with components that are proven and can easily be tailored to fit the desired product.

"The Internet of Things is as much about the Integration of Things as anything else," says Greg McNeil, VP and GM of the Innovation Labs at Flex. "While innovation has several aspects, the feasibility and viability of a concept is very challenging to understand without the right context. The only way to remove the risk of unknowns is to try out the concept with components that are proven and can easily be tailored to fit the desired product." The pending explosion of intelligent products—smart phones, cars, clothing, and home appliances—promises a simpler way of life for consumers. For manufacturers and engineers, however, fulfilling this promise means knowing more than ever about a rapidly growing array of...things. "The fast pace of technology evolution, coupled with Moore's Law and web technologies, have outstripped our ability to commercialize these technologies at web speed," says Bob Groppo, a former Flex senior fellow and current VP of engineering at OQO, creator of the world's smallest fully functional Windows Vista(R) PC. "It still takes nine months to a year to get new products into the market and much longer for breakthrough technology products. Today's companies tackle this problem in their own walled labs, figuratively reinventing the wheel over and over again with innovation suffering in the balance." There is a better way. Developers have to clearly understand how to create seamless, intuitive user experiences at the hardware level. By using modular building blocks—pre­-characterized reference architectures, standard frameworks, software, and hardware—they'll be able to connect smart devices to one another and the cloud in hours instead of months. The process involves bringing together product designers from companies and sectors across the board to join forces. More than merely swapping technologies, this helps create an ecosystem of innovation. For customers who ben­efit from this standardization, creating breakthrough products becomes a game of stacking blocks. Some stacks are complicated and need delicate balance. Others fit together more simply and are easy to manipulate into a variety of new shapes. Last year, the technology industry held its first Silicon Valley Open Innovation Summit. More than 30 speakers ranging from tech suppliers to product designers discussed the potential opportunities for establishing these building blocks. Three trends emerged.

Innovation Across Sectors

Something powerful happened nearly two decades ago: Silicon chip designers realized they were unable to keep up with the growing complexity of the silicon chips themselves. They also understood that the most disruptive market innovations happen at the cross-section of different markets, so the chip makers started identifying common platforms and outside technologies that would be needed to make these products. Manufacturers rarely reused parts of chips, and they generally started from scratch when envisioning new designs. Semicon­ductor sector leaders migrated to create standards around technologies in cores, or building blocks, that allowed chip designers to leverage previous work. This improved time to market and enabled innovation of new products. It changed the complete supply chain. There was an emergence of new core-based design houses (e.g., ARM) and the role of chip manufacturing also changed to qualify new cores into the manufacturing system. Despite worries that reuse could stifle innovation or that companies would give away their best intellectual property (IP), chip makers today successfully use building blocks as a matter of course, improving speed to market while enabling technological advances and investments that would have been otherwise impossible. It wasn't just the semiconductor companies that discovered the benefits of reusable IP and building blocks. The same innovations happened in software development, when the world was moving rapidly from single-point solutions to standardized operating environments, development, test frameworks, and well-defined interfaces. This shift from point solutions to the silicon and software building-block approach is what has led to the rapid digitization of our planet. The challenge now is to figure out how to connect all of these digital devices into a smarter, connected world.

New Investments Drive Innovation

Tomorrow's winners will be the firms that can work the building blocks into their design approaches. They'll be able to look beyond their own business models and start amassing the right kind of core technologies—building blocks—and become true innovators. The teams at global design, engineering, and manufacturing company Flex, for example, have catalogued more than 200 building blocks that can be combined in various ways to make things smarter, from a battery-recharging technology activated by use of the battery itself, to an iris-­detection tool and "glasses-free" 3-D. All of the devices begin with a unique arrangement of Flex's basic building blocks.

From Ivory Towers to Open Innovation Labs

So how do those building blocks start to come together? Flex has reorganized its engineering organization and launched centers of excellence around particular categories of them: sensors and actuators, human-machine interfacing, wireless and connectivity, low-power battery management, smart software, and flexible technologies. Among the building blocks in high demand from Flex's customers these days is its tried-and-tested liquid repellent, for embedding intelligence-producing sensors into the fibers of clothing to protect the electronics from rain, sweat, and the washing machine. Makers of home appliances and medical devices also need advanced waterproofing power as they insert electronic "brains" into their goods. Tactile feedback technol­ogy, which responds to force or touch with another movement, is another building block popular with Flex customers. It enables intelligence in everything from farming equipment to surgical equipment. Flex's IP lies mostly in how the company puts the building blocks together. This way, its technology leaders can drive breakthroughs while at the same time promoting an open industrywide collaboration. Simply put, the innovation is less about the bricks you own and more about the things you make with those bricks. The company's Collective Innovation Platform (CIP) actively seeks new technologies and tests them for manufacturability, while shopping them to wide-ranging customers who need them most. "At Flex's Innovation Labs, anyone can see these ideas at work," McNeil says. "The CIP is a proven platform. It is not about patents and technologies but about the people, process, and proof of success that make this the platform of choice for product innovation."