How can trial and error lead to design innovation?

The consumer items that are most used by today’s society didn’t come off the drawing board in their final form. The smartphone, tablet or even laptop computer were, at first, ungainly items that most people wouldn’t even consider buying.

Naturally, there were limitations in the technology (there’s a reason mobile phones from the 1980s look like bricks) but part of their unsightliness was down to the design process. This isn’t to say that the designers of the products lacked talent, more that they were put under pressure to produce an item within the boundaries of the time.

Now, the design space is more diverse than ever before. Thanks to everything from computer-aided design (CAD) software to 3-D printers, both huge manufacturers and sole traders have more tools at their disposal to make products as streamlined as possible.

Consequently, the practice of trial and error isn’t really as noticeable as it once was. With the plethora of simulations that can be run and vigorous testing that products can be subjected to – even before they are physically produced – there’s no need to push forward with half-baked ideas.

However, trial and error can help drive design innovation, even in the modern design space.

Designs can be tested to destruction in the virtual environment.

Aggregated marginal gains

Financial Times contributor Luke Johnson surmised that many of today’s most innovative companies simply weren’t in that state 20, 10 or even five years ago. However, those that make many prototypes and really grow their ideas are the most successful.

The skill lies in learning from mistakes in an inexpensive way. While trial and error can certainly produce results, there’s little point in attempting it if the company goes bankrupt before the end product is finalised.

Fortunately, this is exactly where the aforementioned 3-D design software comes in. Rather than spending an exorbitant amount of money on creating a tangible prototype, designs can be tested to destruction in a virtual environment.

Naturally, the trial and error can still occur in the digital space, but in a much more controlled way.

Trial and error or failure?

Alongside trial and error, there are some instances where flat out failure has actually led to genuine innovation. In fact, a whole exhibition at the Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin has been dedicated to such projects. There are some particularly high profile examples:

James Dyson – Dyson vacuum cleaner

A product that was genuinely groundbreaking when it first launched was the Dyson vacuum cleaner. However, its success is the direct result of a huge amount of product testing and consequent failures.

James Dyson himself admitted that failed experiments with his own vacuum cleaner back in 1978 were the driving force behind his engineering breakthroughs. In fact, Mr Dyson surmised that it took him a grand total of 5,127 prototypes before he achieved the product he wanted.

Today, his company has over 1,500 engineers and scientists dedicated to trial and error and experimentation. The company’s most cutting-edge product – the DC54 – was the amalgamation of over 2,000 prototypes.

The example shows that trial and error can unlock great innovations, but even the biggest and best companies have to keep pushing themselves if they’re to stay at the top of the game.

Ebon Upton – Raspberry Pi computer

Ebon Upton and a team at The University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory started to draw up plans for their device when they recognised a gap in the market – home programmable computers.

In short, they surmised that there was no easy way for people – especially children – to take up computing as a hobby. Consequently, the Raspberry Pi was born, but not without a huge amount of initial trial and error.

The prototype submitted to the exhibit at the Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin was in fact the very first prototype. To give an idea of how far the final product had to come through testing, the Raspberry Pi that eventually hit shelves is 1,000 more powerful than the one on display.

That figure is all the more impressive when it’s considered that Mr Upton and his team originally laid the foundation for the idea in 2006, before launching the first Raspberry Pi a mere six years later.


Fail for the better

“Fail fast, fail early, fail often. It’s almost a badge of honour in the start-up world,” explained the curator of the exhibit Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, in an interview with the BBC.

Using that mantra, today’s designers shouldn’t be afraid to experiment or even push the boundaries to breaking point.

While playing it safe may seem like the most cost-effective option, trial and error can be viable providing the right tools are put to use. Ultimately, behind every successful invention and design is a string of experiments and prototypes that didn’t quite work, but started their designers on the path to success.

Designing or manufacturing in Asia Pacific? Contact us at SOLIDWORKS to see how we can help inspire engineering innovation and improve every aspect of your product development.