Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Visualizing the Unseen: Powerful Tools in Innovation

An exciting development in materials science is a new class of polymers that change color when under stress. The American Chemical Society recently highlighted the work of Dr. Nancy R. Sottos at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who spearheaded the research that provided the first solid polymers that change color as a function of stress. This provides an important new tool in visualizing what is happening when materials fail and deform. Tools that make the unseen visible often opens up progress in many other areas. The ACS article on this work gives a hint at some of the advances that may follow:
"These polymers are extremely interesting to materials scientists since they combine photo-, thermo-, and mechanochromic properties into a single system," comments Stephen H. Foulger, a materials science professor at Clemson University, in South Carolina. "These properties, coupled with the fact that the color change can be maintained with the cessation of stress, can be exploited by engineers in the design of polymeric components that visually indicate to the end-user their stress, strain, thermal, or ultraviolet-visible light exposure history. It's a true smart material," he says.

Sottos tells C&EN that the work demonstrates the concept that mechanical force can trigger the activation of specific covalent bonds in a polymer. She hopes to develop new mechanophores that do more than just change color. For example, molecules that cross-link or polymerize in response to mechanical stress could lead to self-toughening or self-healing materials, she says.

Polymers and material science are not the only place where progress occurs when that which was long invisible can now be seen. Innovation is possible in how we do business or run an organization when we apply new tools to track and observe the typically invisible flow of intangibles in the value network or ecosystem of the organization. These intangible include the sharing of knowledge, the communication and relationship building activities that occur in transactions between individuals that aren't described by looking at tangibles like the flow of goods, services, and money in the value chain, the visible things that are normally observed in business and organizations. Much of the performance of an organization depends on the hard-to-see intangibles that create the knowledge, loyalty, trust, and relationships that are often the primary engines for business health and success.

Intangibles can be visualized, at least to some degree, using Value Network Analysis and related tools. By considering and searching for the nature of the human-to-human transactions of intangibles and mapping these, visualized organizational characteristics can do much to help analysts understand strengths and weakness of an organization, and point to areas where improvement is needed.

If you're not considering both tangibles and intangibles in your business, if you haven't mapped out your ecosystem to understand how your organization works, then you may benefit from Value Network Analysis, which is one of the services that Innovationedge and its associates can provide for your organization.

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