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University appoints first Innovator-in-Residence

August 26, 2011

University appoints first Innovator-in-Residence

A research programme to help New Zealand businesses perform better is at the heart of Massey University’s newest initiative – hosting an Innovator-in-Residence.

Inaugural Innovator-in-Residence Colin Gilchrist, managing director at Set Based Solutions, is based part-time at the Albany campus where he is working with Dr Aruna Shekar, a senior lecturer at the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, some of her students, and several companies.

Mr Gilchrist, who was general manager quality for Fisher & Paykel Appliances from 1972 until 2010, is a champion of Learning First Product Development, a new approach based on the Toyota manufacturing model. He says it makes product design less costly and results in better quality products.

He is running workshops and research activities in conjunction with Dr Shekar and her students to adapt and implement the model that he says will significantly enhance Kiwi business outcomes. The model, which is behind Toyota’s superior economic performance, concentrates on thorough research and “knowledge capture” at the development stage in product design.

Mr Gilchrist says most companies in the early stages fail to invest sufficient time and money in careful planning and research of their product.

“Most manufacturing companies have two issues in common that plague their innovation processes: the loss of knowledge across projects and the continual loopbacks to fix problems caused by design decisions made with incorrect knowledge,” he says. Engineers spend much of their time “fire-fighting” problems that could have been solved earlier in the development process.

“Observations show that companies with these issues have a consistent pattern of development behaviour. They set specifications early; they define concepts and schedules early, they rush design decisions without proper knowledge.”

The consequences for business are; delayed schedules, cost overruns, lost engineering productivity, poor quality products and subsequent lost profits.

He believes New Zealand companies, large and small, would benefit from adopting the method.

In his resident role at the University, he and Dr Shekar are working to monitor and enhance industrial innovation practices locally to world-class standards in partnership with several companies; Gallagher (engineering), Tait (engineering), Hansells (food) and Aucom (electronics). Other companies will be coming on board later in the year.

Mr Gilchrist has been giving workshops with the assistance of visiting American product design educator Kent Harmon, co-author of Ready, Set, Dominate, a handbook on the Learning First Product Development method. Mr Harmon says the complex problem-solving method requires a radical culture change in the way companies carry out product design.

The research programme underway at the University includes an assessment tool to gauge current performance of product innovation, a new product development model with a focus on the front-end (the foundation and critical stage) of development, and set-based [creating multiple design variations simultaneously] thinking and methods.

Dr Shekar says Learning First Product Design methods are being integrated into product design teaching and research at Massey to equip a new generation of engineers for future challenges.

“Our aim is to adapt the successful new product development model in New Zealand to suit the company context and culture, and validate it through industrial case studies,” Dr Shekar says. “Essentially what we want to do is to propose a map for the sustainability of learning within companies.”

Mr Gilchrist’s role as Innovator-in-Residence is a key part of the University’s newly-launched Innovation Strategy, which aims to encourage staff and students across all disciplines to consider how their knowledge and ideas can be transformed into tools or products for the benefit of the wider society.


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