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Appendix C: The 40 Principles


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > Appendix C: The 40 Principles

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These are the 40 principles that Altshuller discovered as being common to many inventions. You can use the Contradictions Matrix to find a principle that may be useful in a specific situation or you can use one or more of the principles as tools to help you solve any inventive problem. All the Principles should be seen as opportunities to modify things!

1. Segmentation

Segmentation means to separate into smaller parts. A modular design can result in parts which plug together in different ways, or is easy to manufacture, assemble and take apart, such as when repairing or transporting it. Open office ‘cubicles’ use segmentation to allow the layout of offices to be easily changed. As you now have separate parts you can treat these parts differently or they can be made of different materials and have different shapes.

2. Extraction

Extraction means to take out or separate something, such as removing a painful tooth or singling out the critical parts of a system. Sometimes simply placing a bad art of the system in a different place lessens the bad effect or removes it completely, as with our lamp post example. Seek the value of different parts or aspects. Low-value items may be eliminated or high-value items may be extracted and used elsewhere in different circumstances.

3. Local Quality

Do not assume that the current placing or usage of parts cannot be changed–the reasons may be buried in history or may be more for manufacturing convenience than for the value they give in operation. Local Quality means to single out specific parts and then to change them or place them in an environment such that they are optimally useful.

4. Asymmetry

As aesthetic people, we are often attracted to symmetry, which leads us to not question whether asymmetry may be more useful. Symmetrical objects are often easier to manufacture, but may not be the most useful design. To use asymmetry, make uniform objects asymmetrical; make things asymmetrical in each of the different dimensions of the object and for more than one parameter. Fashion designers use asymmetry to create a wide range of interesting styles. Varying shapes give the opportunity for one shape to do one thing and another shape to perform another function.

5. Combination

The principle of combination is bring together things which happen at the same time or in the same place. This can mean doing things in parallel or creating single devices where previously there were more. A washing machine that also acts as a tumble-drier uses the principle of combination. Combination gives you the opportunity to simplify!

6. Universality

Universality is used where objects can perform multiple functions, such as ‘Swiss army’ knives or sofa beds. It is particularly useful where you can eliminate an object by having another object perform the same function.

7. Nesting

Nesting means putting one thing inside another like a Russian doll, or fitting things together in some way. An object which is contained within another object is protected and makes the overall device smaller. The telescope uses nesting both for focusing and to fold it up into a smaller and more portable device.

8. Counterweight

When a system results in an undesirable force in one direction, a counterweight is a deliberate change to balance out or improve the situation by acting in the opposite direction. Traction control systems in vehicles can change the suspension system to shift the positioning of the body to balance out a tendency to roll.

9. Prior Counteraction

When you know that an undesirable situation is going to happen, you may be able to do something ahead of when it would occur, either to prevent it from happening or to reduce the impact that might be felt when it does happen. Methods to do this includes reinforcing and setting up counterweights so the problem is managed at all times.

10. Prior Action

When something is to be done at some time, Prior Action means preparing or taking some action beforehand to smooth and ease the event when it does occur. For example, laying the table for breakfast last thing in the evening will save time and stress on the following morning in the sleepy hurry to eat and get to work. It is far too easy to design a device or manufacturing process so that something is done when it is needed to be done. But that may not be the best time for it to happen so think about when you want an action/function and choose the best time!

11. Cushion in Advance

Another form of doing things ahead of an event is to prepare for things which will fail or go wrong in some way. This can range from mistake-proofing a process to creating uninterruptible power supplies for computers.

12. Equipotentiality

A lot of work involves lifting and lowering things, for example to access parts underneath them. Equipotentiality means finding ways to avoid this heavy work. For example, a chest of drawers was a simple solution to the problems of a single chest, where to get to things at the bottom you had to take out all of the things on top (and then put them back again).

13. Inversion

Inversion means doing the opposite of what might seem normal, such as having a tray come out of a hi-fi system to accept a CD, rather than having to insert the CD into a static part of the system. You can lift instead of lower, do things in reverse order, turn things upside down and a thousand other inverting actions.

14. Spheroidality

 We tend to like flat surfaces and often do not challenge them. Spheroidality asks us to consider curves, in all of their various forms. We can use ball bearings to reduce friction, bend metal smoothly to retain strength or move things around in smooth curves rather than angular jerks. Where there already is curvature, change the radius, or let a flat curve take off into another dimension.

15. Dynamicity

If a system is made up of parts which are all connected rigidly together, then any force applied to the system is felt equally by all parts. When things are fixed, then when their environment changes, they are unable to cope well with the change. Dynamicity means creating systems which are able to cope with change and intrusions from outside it. Separating parts, using suspension systems, flexible connections and cushioning all are methods of achieving dynamicity.

16. Partial, overdone or excessive action

Sometimes perfection is either impossible or too expensive to consider. What you can always consider is how you can do things at less than or even more than 100%, and to what degree you can do this. Animals cope with varying food supplies by storing food that is not needed now as body fat (which can also double up as insulation) or slowing down their metabolic rate, such as by hibernating or sleeping.

17. Moving to a new dimension

When you are having problems that has to do with straight lines, try using a second or third dimension. Go upwards, sideways or around corners. Reflect energy, bend metal, change your route. You can also move dimensions by rotating the object, changing your viewpoint, or even changing the number of objects.

18. Mechanical vibration

Vibration is effectively a way of injecting energy into an object, which can break it away from other things or allow it to be moved (‘bounced’) easily. You can do this by shaking, vibrating, sound waves or ultrasonics. By varying both the frequency and amplitude, you can create different effects.

19. Periodic action

A vibration is a constant series of energy bursts. We can also put gaps between those energy bursts to create Periodic action. If you are using continuous force, pulsed energy can be more effective (this is what a hammer drill does). You can change the force, how long it is applied and how long between each application. Rear cycle lamps were once all constantly red, then someone came up with the idea of a flashing light which not only saves energy, it also attracts motorists’ attention.

20. Continuity of useful action

Not all parts of all machines are being optimally used all of the time. We can thus improve matters by reducing this idle time or putting it to better use. For example a reciprocating saw has a dead time at the end of each stroke which is eliminated by the circular saw. An alternative may be to put the reciprocation to good use, such as actuating a pump which removes the sawdust.

21. Rushing through

Doing things at high speed reduces the time during which problems may occur. For example, if you are cutting a soft material slowly, it will deform, making the cutting a difficult job. By doing it very fast, the material does not have time to deform.

22. Convert harm into benefit

Sometimes harmful or undesired effects, such as the creation of waste, result from the process. A simple conversion of harm to benefit is when the heat from a vehicle engine is used to warm the people in the car. Many industries born from inventively looking at how waste can be not only recycled but also put to good use. If something does not work well, ask ‘where else would this limited effect be useful?’ You can even increase the harm to create benefit, such as making enough flammable waste gasses to heat the building.

23. Feedback

Feedback is taking or sensing the output of a system and using this to change events which happen before, such as a thermostat being used to control temperature. You can also reverse feedback, perhaps to exaggerate or accelerate change or to cancel out an undesirable effect. Pop stars use positive feedback to create howling guitar noises. People who like silence can use noise cancelling feedback.

24. Mediator

Sometimes you need an action carried out which cannot easily be done by the system as it is. In this case, you have the option of either adding a new part or temporarily bringing in something to perform the action. To remove liquid from a vessel, you can build in a tipping mechanism or bring in a pump when it is needed.

25. Self-service

Can your device do things for itself, even occasional actions such as testing or maintenance? To create a hole into which a tube must fit very snugly, you might be able to get the tube to drill the hole itself by heating or sharpening the end, perhaps in combination with another principle such as vibration.

26. Copying

Rather than use the expensive, delicate or inaccessible original, can you use a simple copy. This may be done physically or optically, such as using an image of some sort. Once you have a copy, you can change it different ways to achieve the desired benefit. Image intensifiers work by taking a copy of the light available and amplifying it. It may, for example, be easier to measure a copy of an object than the object itself.

27. Inexpensive short life

When something is relatively expensive or causes other problems, you might be able to replace it with something cheaper that works for the moment. This is a principle than has been used many times to create a disposable society. From Gillette’s razor blades onwards, many inventors have found that a lucrative income can be created with cheap devices that people buy regularly.

28. Replacement of a mechanical system

Mechanical inventors sometimes get trapped by their discipline and opportunities arise for those with knowledge of other subjects can improve the system. You can even replace physical systems with invisible effects, for example replacing wheels on a train by a magnetic lift system. You can also create different effects by varying fields such as using high frequencies or pulsing.

29. Use pneumatic or hydraulic systems

In its most general form, this principle is about replacing solids with liquids or gases, which can easily be channelled and have different properties such as their flexibility, which can be useful for cushioning. Pneumatic and hydraulic systems are particularly useful for channelling energy to a desired place, using flexible pipes. By changing the bore of the pipe, pressure can also be easily increased or decreased.

30. Flexible film or thin membranes

Thin films have a number of useful properties, such as low cost, low space, flexibility and usage. They can be used to separate, isolate and protect, such as the ‘cling film’ that is used to wrap food. The film can be bought in a roll, but it can also be created in situ (paint is just such a useful thin film).

31. Use of porous materials

Porous material allow some substances through them and block others, which allows them to be used for separating and filtering out desired or undesirable elements. As with mops, they also can be used for absorbing and collecting liquids or gases, which can subsequently be released in a controlled manner as required. Where porosity is an undesirable effect, then you may want to clog up the pores rather than utilise them.

32. Changing the colour

Colour can be an aesthetic factor or it can have practical uses, such as signalling danger. It can also be used as a detection mechanism, such as the use of litmus paper to determine acidity levels. You can also change the transparency of colours, such as in optical filters.

33. Homogeneity

A homogeneous substance is made up of the same material. So what if you made your device out of different materials? What would be the effect of each part? How would these interact? What if you used all the same material? The principle of homogeneity can also be used in other areas, such as the behaviour of parts of the system. In an electronic system all plugs could be the same to reduce costs, or they could be different to prevent accidentally plugging things into the wrong place.

34. Rejecting and regenerating parts

When a part has been used and is no longer needed, what do you do with it? Typically you either throw it away, restore it or recycle it somehow. Whichever approach you use, you will probably need to include some system to cope with this.

35. Transforming physical or chemical states

Sometimes changing the object in some way, such as its temperature, concentration or density, is useful. Think of the chemical composition of the substances. What is the relationship between the atoms and molecules? Are they tightly bound together, do they slide around or come apart easily? Look at the effects on flexibility, load-bearing, chemical reactions, and so on.

36. Phase transition

Substances often go through changes, such as expanding, evaporating, cooling or changing shape. Think about how this happens and how you can start, stop or otherwise control the change. Is the effect reversible? Can you use a simple catalytic effect?

37. Thermal expansion

When you heat things up, they usually expand at varying rates. This can either be a problem that you need to handle or it can be a tool to solve problems. The bimetallic strip is a simple example where two connected metal strips, each of which expands at a different rate, resulting in a device which bends when it is heated, thus giving the basis of many thermostats and thermometers.

38. Use strong oxidisers

The oxygen in the air reacts with many substances, from iron (creating rust) to flammable substances (enabling fire). This effect can be increased by using materials which combine with oxygen more easily or by adding more oxygen to the system, for example in a blowtorch.

39. Inert environment

When oxygen and other reagents in the environment are a problem, sometimes a good solution is to take them away, replacing them with chemicals that will not react with your device. For example, light bulbs are partially evacuated and filled with inert gases to prevent the thin filament from oxidising and thus breaking.

40. Composite materials

When things are made of all the same substance, they are vulnerable to problems that affect that material. By using a combination of materials, synergistic effects can be created where the different materials used not only contribute their different properties, they also act together to provide something that is better than any individual part. For example, composite bows can fire arrows further and more consistently than bows made of any single material.

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