Like in his work with design engineering students, former CEO and entrepreneur Burt Swersey's recently conceived Innovation Junction blog gives step-by-step instruction on improving products and processes by helping to identify, understand and solve open-ended problems.

New product innovation has always been of strategic importance, but "it took on even greater significance in 2006," AMR Research's Michael Burkett noted earlier this year in Successful New Product Innovation: Trends to Watch in 2007.

On the product innovation front, “Global competition is such that engineers no longer have the luxury to wait to be told what to do,” writesBurt Swersey, a former entrepreneur and CEO of four medical equipment companies and current lecturer in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y.

Swersey, who was recently awarded the 2007 Olympus Lifetime of Educational Innovation Award, has taught the ideals and methods of innovation and has served as a role model to students for the past 18 years. He holds 14 U.S. patents himself.

Like in his work with design engineering students, the blog he recently created gives a step by step for improving products and processes by helping to identify, understand and solve open-ended problems. The following are his suggestions for finding unrecognized problems and needs, understanding those needs fully and then stating the vision of “what could be.”

1) Identifying, defining and understanding the problem is critical to design success.

• Research is key. What is life like for the user? Why? What has already been done?
• Who are the stakeholders? Explain.
• Compose a clear problem statement of the need/opportunity for improvements.
• Perform “reverse engineering” analysis of what exists.
• Understand how existing devices/solutions work, how they’re built and what they cost.

2) Criticize what exists, and do so in a structured manner (i.e., using a template).

• What are the assumptions?
• What are the compromises?
• What would be ideal?

“Use metrics in the evaluation and criticism, rather than vague terms like ‘large,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘hard to use’ and ‘expensive,’” Swersey says. “Start with functional analysis of the sub-system; functions that must be provided by the sub-system.”

A template for criticizing should include the following:

a) Physical characteristics
b) Performance
c) Cost-affordability for the user
d) Interface with the user AND the environment
e) Safety
f) Innovation

3) Create a vision of what is needed and what you will do, before you know how to do it or even if it is possible.

Ask: “Billions of people in the developing world do not have [ ?], which means that their lives are [ ?]. The lives of everyone in the world are affected by this because [ ?]. Therefore, [ your vision] commits us to create [ ?]. The result will be [ ?], and the benefits will be [ ?].

“We don’t know how we are going to do this, but we will do it within the next [ ?] months.”

Check out Swersey’s Innovation Junction blog for additional, informal advice on design, innovation, patents, engineering and business, based on the former entrepreneur's decades’ of experience.