Using analogies to develop new products: What if a locomotive was like a Lego construction?

A fascinating recent article from Fortune describes how Bombardier, a Canadian company that makes trains and airplanes, has developed a locomotive that solves a key problem that has held back rail logistics in Europe: Dealing with the wide variety of rail systems, specific to different countries, that cover Europe ” and that have slowed freight trains' progress across the continent. (Passenger trains generally get priority, so European rail passengers are less likely to notice the hassle than companies trying to ship freight.)

From an innovation perspective, what's particularly interesting about the Fortune story is what it reveals about Bombardier's product development process in this case. Apparently Bombardier's engineers were inspired by Lego toys ” the stackable plastic blocks many of us enjoyed playing with as children.  The result? Thinking about the modular Lego system, the engineers "created a locomotive, called 'Traxx,' that uses interchangeable 'bricks' ” boxes that contain the power conversion units needed to run a train. The rail operators can configure their engines to operate in any country the train enters. One combination of bricks makes the locomotive fit for running from Holland to Italy; another makes it run from France to Germany ” and so forth."

Interestingly, this example of inspiration from an unrelated area dovetails nicely with academic research about the importance of using analogies in new product development. There's an excellent and surprisingly readable academic working paper about this topic available for download, by several researchers from Germany's Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg. "A new and creative solution usually results from the combination of pieces of knowledge that have not been connected before. One promising avenue to create new combinations of knowledge is the use of analogies, " write Katharina Kalogerakis, Cornelius Herstatt and Christian Lüthje. They interviewed project leaders at 13 design and/or engineering companies about the role analogies played in various new product development projects.

The results ranged from transferring technical solutions from one similar realm to another ” what the researchers call "near analogies" ” to analogies between very disparate things, such as thinking about an egg as an analogy for the kind of protection fork-lift truck cabins should provide their drivers ” or shark skin as an analogy for what a bathing suit should be like.  These the authors term "far analogies." They found that design teams tended to use "far analogies" when the foremost project goal was innovativeness in the product development process and "near analogies" when efficiency in product development was the major goal. Most analogies came from a team member's experience, knowledge or personal network ” suggesting the importance of new product development teams with a range of backgrounds and experience.

Not to mention a solid background in playing with Legos...