The LAB: Innovating a Garage Door Opener (March 2009)

by | Mar 28, 2009 | Consultants, Creativity Tools, Design Thinking, Evaluation Ideas, Innovation Clusters, Jacob Goldenberg, Technology, The Economist, The Wheel | 3 comments


Teaching people how to innovate is rewarding.  It empowers them.  It unlocks their minds to believe that innovation can happen “on command.”   People realize there is no excuse for not having enough ideas or being innovative once they have been trained.

This month’s LAB features the output of one of my students, Michael Sanders, in my class, “Applied Marketing Innovation.”  For the final exam, students were assigned a product at random.  They had three hours to apply all five templates in the Systematic Inventive Thinking method to come up with true new-to-the-world innovations.  They were graded on how correctly they applied each template as well as the novelty of their inventions.  Michael’s assignment:  Garage Door Opener.  Here is what he did.

Garage_door_opener His component list:

  1. motor
  2. track
  3. chain
  4. door
  5. light
  6. remote control
  7. power chord
  8. wheels

The innovation approach is to take a component, apply a template to it, take the new, morphed product (called a virtual product), and work backwards to think of all the benefits and uses of it.  When you do this, you are inventing a new product.  This is SOLUTION-TO-PRODUCT innovation.  Here are Michael’s ideas:

Motorless Garage Opener 1.  SUBTRACTION:  Remove the motor.  The virtual product is a “motorless garage door opener.”  (This certainly sounds weird and  counterintuitive.  It is an excellent component to pick because it creates a virtual product with high potential for novelty.)  Benefits: energy-efficient, low cost, easier maintenance.  With the subtraction tool, we are allowed to replace it with something else, but not with the original component.  Michael’s invention is brilliant.  He replaces the motor of the garage door with the motor and wheels of the car pulling up to the garage.  The wheels rest on top of a tread in the driveway and turn the tread to open the door.  While a bit complicated, I could imagine this embodiment in an industrial setting or other environment where it is infeasible to have a motor-powered garage door.  Shown to the right is his rendering of it.

2.  TASK UNIFICATION:  Assign an additional task to the track (rails) that guide the door as it opens.  The job Michael assigned to the rails is to spray water and soap down on the car – he created a home car wash using the components inherent in a garage door.  The idea is simple and appealing.  It is novel in that it integrates the idea of a car wash within an environment we don’t normally think of having one.  Very cool!

3.  MULTIPLICATION:  Make many copies of the wheels on the garage door and place them in the floor of the garage.  The benefit:  these additional wheels turn after the door opens and gently back the car in and out of the garage like on a conveyor belt.  Michael calls it the “Garage Valet.”   (My wife would love it considering how often she scrape the side of our garage door!)

4.  DIVISION:  The virtual product is to divide the main garage door physically into six equal parts, each maintaining the functions and properties of the larger door.   Each part can be opened separately.  The benefit is that the owner can control how much of the door actually opens depending on what has to get in or out of the garage.  It saves energy and prevents heat or cooling loss that occurs when the much larger garage door is opened.  This is a novel idea.  Michael extended the idea beyond just garage doors.  Imagine a side of your house having these mini-doors that can opened up more as windows to let air or light in.  It completely breaks the traditional view of homes with doors and windows, providing more flexibility in how the home is used.

5.  ATTRIBUTE DEPENDENCY:  Michael took the internal attributes of the garage door light (it’s color) and combined it with the local weather conditions and highway traffic conditions to create a new dependency between them.  The invention is a garage door that tells you the local weather.  It also indicates how crowded the main highways are as you get ready to leave in your car.  The garage door would be connected to your home Internet connection and tie into already-existing online services that provide this information.  I like this idea a lot because it is both feasible and highly useful.  The technology is readily available to do this.

Michael got an “A” on his final exam which you can download here.  Michael was a student at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP).  He is a talented guy.

To see all the final exams from this course, visit the Innovation Wiki.