Dr Alex Moulton, founder of Moulton Developments

I very much believe in reward and recognition for the innovator

How do I define success or failure of an engineering innovation? I dismiss immediately, as a prime criterion of success, the making of personal wealth for the innovator. If that is the prime objective, the current examples of dealing in the financial world show the way to amass personal fortunes.

Of course, in no way am I advocating the inventor starving in a garret as I believe was the fabled case of Charles Goodyear, the American inventor of vulcanising rubber which was brought to England by my great-grandfather Stephen Moulton, who indeed did pay him royalties by manufacturing under his licence. I very much believe in reward and recognition for the innovator.

What I question is the present-day preoccupation of selling off companies, which is destabilising for the firm and especially so when control is lost elsewhere.

The drive to improve is one of the fascinations of engineering and I believe it is the duty of the engineer to interest themselves in advancing in efficiency, or down-cost, the technology in which they are concerned.

What is an undoubted success is an innovation which `breaks the mould and opens the floodgates’ for advances in a technology; preferably one which generates wealth by new employment and export of the product to help our balance of trade. We recently commemorated the life of the late Sir Frank Whittle, a prime example of this.

But even a seeming failure may have passed some lesson of great value into the stream of future engineering endeavour. The pressure cabin fatigue failure of the pioneering de Havilland Comet jet airliner is such an example (what really lost our lead to the Americans was our failure to adopt the `pod’ jet engine layout pioneered by Boeing).

From my experience the following factors are helpful for success in engineering innovations:

* The innovator should demonstrate his proposal with evidence of key experiments, always based on sound fundamentals and ideally with a working prototype.

* For innovations, I advocate the `rapid response’ method of prototyping, namely: sketching for form and function, calculating the fundamentals, drawing to scale, and iteratively making and testing the elements, all being within the scheme design of the whole. The computer is useful for dynamic simulation.

* If the chosen route for exploiting the innovation is to licence, then the personal relationships with officials at all levels in the licensed company are vital. Remember the natural (not invented here) opposition to proposals made from outside.

* One example of optimised relationships was Moulton Developments, a triangular company formed between BMC, Dunlop and myself to develop Hydrolastic, and later Hydragas, suspension for use in Sir Alec Issigonis’s cars, starting with the Austin/Morris 1100 in 1962.

* The development costs, budgeted and continuously accounted, should be funded by the end users, or if exclusive, by the supplier alone.

* The innovator is thus rewarded by his controlled costs of development being sponsored, and by the prospect of a commercially determined royalty on the future manufacture of his innovation.

* The worst scenario is when sponsoring is turned off completely when a particular market prospect closes. It is much better for an interested party to maintain some, however small, trickle of sponsoring for the continuity of creativity.

* One innovation brought to production should nourish the creation of the next.

* An alternative to licensing some other party is to `do it oneself’. At least all decisions are in one’s own hands but it is unusual for the qualities required for building a successful enterprise to be compatible with those of the creative design engineer. There are a few highly successful exceptions.

In recalling my admiration for Misha Black, I believe he would have agreed with me on the paramount importance of the quality of design in all the foregoing, and the extreme satisfaction when this is achieved.

Dr Alex Moulton developed the Moulton bicycle and Hydrolastic and Hydragas rubber/fluid suspension systems. Last month he received the Sir Misha Black Medal for distinguished services to design education. This article is based on his lecture.