Insights into R&D: Elaborating on my tweets

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For those of you who follow me on Twitter ( @discoverRB -Edd), I’ve decided to write a blog post. This should give you a bit more insight into my job and what I’ve actually been up to recently, as it’s difficult to say much with only 140 characters.

 

I have two main projects that I have been focussing on since late spring; they are both looking at ways to improve Airwick devices.

 

air-wickThe first of them aims to improve the performance of a device that is already on the market, so that we can put more claims on the packaging of the device. This will be what we call a silent change; where the external appearance of the device will not change, but it will perform better than what our customers have become used to.

 

These projects are often very challenging as you are greatly restricted in the ways that the device can be improved. I often find myself thinking, if only I could change the refill design or if I could make the device bigger it would make it much easier to improve the internal workings of the device. You have to put these ideas to one side and focus on how to achieve the project brief whilst maintaining the fixed features. The biggest challenge usually comes down to finding ways to keep any improvements ‘cost neutral’ i.e. if you want to add something that is more expensive then you have to offset that cost in some way.

 

In this project one of the ways that I have kept costs neutral is to vary the amounts of plastics used for different components of the device. Some parts have to be made of a material with specific properties (strength, heat resistance, flexibility etc). I identified ways to reduce the size of expensive parts, whilst maintaining their functionality, to free cost to be allocated to larger cheaper parts that would improve performance.

 

Early in the project we used computer modelling techniques, such as Finite Element Method, to improve our understanding of the functionality of the devices. We then used this to predict ways to improve the device. These ideas were drawn up as CAD (Computer Aided Design) models which could be produced as ‘Rapid Prototypes’. This is an impressive process called ‘Stereo Lithography’ (SLA) that uses lasers to solidify a liquid to produce accurate reproductions of a design. The SLA models were run as normal air fresheners and the best one was selected for further work.

 

We used the findings from the various designs to improve the design of the best one. This was then produced in the correct materials. This is an important step as the SLA resin is likely to perform differently to plastics. It is also an expensive step as tooling for injection moulding can costs tens of thousands of pounds per component.

 

Unfortunately the injection moulded devices did not perform as well as the target set in the project brief. To save the cost of producing new CAD designs and new injection moulding tooling we decided to modify the devices by hand. With a lot of help from my placement student, we used a Dremel Multi tool and various glues to modify the components of the devices; reshaping and resizing them. We tested these hybrid devices and kept modifying the best design from each test and I’m pleased to say that we now have a design that far exceeds the project requirements.

 

Large numbers of the devices have now been placed on test to produce a robust dataset. If they continue to perform well then the findings of my project will be given to the Aircare team and they will use them to improve the devices on the market within the next 12 months.

 

The second project is similar but poses very different challenges. It also has the aim of producing a high performance air freshener, but this one must be better than anything currently on the market. It’s a big ask, but it’s made easier by the fact that I am allowed to create a brand new device from scratch. I really like this project as I really get to ‘think outside the box’. I don’t have to use any of the technologies previously used in air freshening. I can learn from what has gone before, and often the learning is that things have not been done very effectively in the past because cost and environmental issues have been less important.

 

While at the end of the day this device will look much like other Airwick devices, so that it is clearly identifiable on shelf as an RB product, the internal workings will be unlike anything that has gone before. This project is at a very early stage. I have theories of how the device should work and what technologies will be required, but no working prototypes yet.

 

I’ve briefed an agency to help in finding technologies that can perform the required functions. Hopefully they will provide us with a promising list of approaches. We also have an internal team whose role mainly revolves around discovering new technologies as they arise, from universities, research institutions and companies. I have some great components already from Japan and America and have had two very fancy testing rigs produced to experiment with them. The results look impressive so far.

 

This project will be much more long-term than the first, with the device probably not being on the market until 2014. I will complete my section of the work and hand the project to the Aircare team some time next year.

 

Edd

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2 Responses to “Insights into R&D: Elaborating on my tweets”

  1. Hi Edd,

    Great to hear that you’re posting some of your experiences on a blog.

    I am with a new company called hypios – we offer people engaged in R&D access to a large group of your peers for collaborative problem solving. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it: http://www.hypios.com

    Best,
    Anthony

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  2. Edd says:

    Anthony,
    I think the idea of Hypios is very good – to pool resources of intellectuals to enable cheap solution finding. For individuals or companies with issues that do no involve intellectual property I expect it will prove very useful.
    I am unlikely to use Hypios as a seeker, as the nature of my job means that any issues that I need solutions for are likely to involve IP and therefore require me to set up a non-disclosure agreement with any party contracted to find the solution.
    I’m also unlikely to become a solver as it’s too close to my occupation to be a hobby and I cannot use company time to solve other people’s problems.

    Best of luck with Hypios. As I say it’s a good idea.
    Edd

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