Several years ago I came across an incredible Ted talk given by Tim Harford on Trial and Error and The God Complex. In this talk, Tim discusses how many successful complex systems evolved through trial and error. He highlights a case in which Unilever, in their pursuit of the ideal detergent-manufacturing nozzle, tried and failed to optimize their nozzle tooling through complex fluid modeling. When this approach got them nowhere, they attacked the problem from a different perspective – trial and error. They made ten variations on their starting nozzle, took the nozzle that worked best and then made ten iterations to that. This process was iterated over 45 times, at which point they had a “brilliantly” functioning nozzle. To their surprise however, they could not explain why the nozzle worked so well, only that it did.
A combination of modeling and experimentation by trial and error helps determine which solution space has the best chance of providing the best answer.
Application Specific Battery Development and Rapid Prototyping
The example with Unilever is in no way unique. Any time one encounters new product engineering challenges, (a common occurrence in application specific battery development), the need for rapid prototyping and iterating becomes very high. Many emerging technology products strive to provide a superior user experience, and this often means trying to push the limits on battery performance metrics – be this flexibility, unique size and shape, power/energy density or manufacturability. This involves designing and building batteries that have never been done before. Two critical aspects in battery innovation are –
Having an ecosystem where innovative ideas are put forth and quickly tested. The ability to weed out the ones that are not likely to succeed, and nurture the ones that show promise is important. A stage gated process which mitigates risk with rapid prototyping capabilities provides this framework. Having these capabilities allows the designer to play with a much larger set of parameters in a shorter amount of time, enabling the designer to provide a smorgasbord of solutions to the client, making the design process a conversation rather than a monologue. This is critical to helping the client identify the trade-offs they will be making in their final product. In application specific battery design, the value of this cannot be overstated.
Working with the most effective and efficient design space solution is better than taking shots in the dark. Starting with the customers’ end requirements, you can think of the many knobs at your disposal to arrive at your solution. Having a designed experiments approach when you do rapid prototyping allows you to make the most efficient use of your design space and to understand the interplay between different factors. Much of battery design has been spent trying to optimize for the best generic battery – something which provides a good balance of power, capacity and shelf life. However, depending on the application, the battery may be better suited delivering lower specifications in one area, if it can compensate strongly in another. Often this means whittling down one parameter to make room for another – for example reducing packaging and decreasing shelf life in order to provide more active material and optimize for capacity.
Regardless of whether you are a large or small company or simply an inventor tinkering in a garage, possessing the capabilities to rapidly prototype is critical. It opens the possibility for new designs that you may not have even considered when you started, simply by letting the design take you where it goes best.
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