Enter the Matrix

Dave Wilson discovers that to understand the works of Altshuller, a Russian patent clerk, he must first enter the Matrix.

‘Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.’ (Larry and Andy Wachowski – The Matrix).

While working in the Russian patent office, Genrich Altshuller, an engineer and scientist, discovered a pattern to the patents that he was examining. And in 1954, after he and his colleagues had analysed hundreds of thousands of such patents, he came up with a set of forty ‘universal principles of invention’ that can be used by engineers to assist them in product design.

Last week, to find out more about his work, I hurried off to a seminar at the IMechE in London that was hosted by the folks at Oxford Creativity, an outfit that makes its living by teaching the principles of Teoriya Resheniya Izobreatatelskikh Zadatch (TRIZ).

If the name of the course wasn’t intimidating enough, (it actually translates from the Russian as Theory of Inventive Problem Solving), then the ‘Contradiction Matrix’ that was handed out at the start of the course was truly mind-boggling.

The Matrix itself consisted of thirty nine parameters – such as power, shape, speed, area, ease of repair, device complexity and weight – tabulated across the x axis of a chart and the same thirty nine down the y axis. Where the parameters intersected one or more numbers relating to Altshuller’s forty universal principles of design were listed.

After a few words of explanation, the purpose of the Matrix became clear. It turns out that it can be effectively used to show engineers how by examining the ‘contradictions’ in their design, they can then use the forty inventive principles to improve their products.

Designs often contain a contradiction – both technical ones and physical ones. In a technical contradiction, a design engineer may need to improve one engineering parameter such as strength but in doing so another parameter, such as weight, may worsen. In a physical contradiction, a designer may want one parameter to increase, while the same parameter should also decrease. An example here, of course, is a pointer which is required to be long for a presentation but short so that it can be carried around.

By using the Matrix, an engineer can pit one of the features of his design that he wishes to improve against the feature that appears to get worse if he does. He can then see immediately which inventive principles have been used the most in the past to solve that particular design contradiction.

On the way back to the office after the course, I decided to give the Matrix a try. I imagined that I had designed a large roller that was hard to repair. So I looked at where the ‘improving’ parameter ‘ease of repair’ intersected with the worsening feature ‘volume of stationary object’ on the Matrix. At the intersection of the two, I was referred to Altshuller’s first inventive principle – segmentation. Using many smaller rollers instead of one might prove an answer to my problem.

All in all, pretty cool stuff. Especially considering that it was all the work of a chap 50 years ago.

Lucky for us today, there is plenty of stuff that’s available on the Web about Altshuller to help us learn more about his work.

Aside from the Oxford Creativity site, which can be found here, there’s the TRIZ journal site here which provides a number of useful feature articles on the subject, and the Altshuller Institute for TRIZ studies here which highlights several books that are available about the technique.

Worth entering the Matrix to find out more.