Food for Thought: Food Industry Innovation 2019

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

4th April 2019

6 minute read

Home » Nicholas Hill

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘homemade’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘home made’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

Future mobility, electric cars, inner city congestion

What is the Future of Mobility?

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

13th March 2019

Home » Nicholas Hill

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The Problem

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The Solutions

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

Being Your User

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

19th December 2018

Home » Nicholas Hill

One of the important steps in the Design Council’s recommendations for good design is called “Being Your Users” and is a “Method to put yourself into the position of your user.” Its purpose is “building an understanding of and empathy with the users of your product …” Approaching product design from this perspective is critical to ensuring that the features incorporated are actually beneficial to the user – as opposed to features that are of benefit to the manufacturer, for example, or “because we can” features that have no obvious benefit at all.

It’s clear that domestic appliances are becoming more sophisticated, a trend which is facilitated by the availability of low-cost sensors and processing power. This has some clear benefits, such as the availability of more energy- or water-efficient wash cycles for example. And if designers stay focused on providing something of value to the end user this is a trend to be welcomed.

In practice, I see examples of what looks rather like engineers wondering what else they can do with all this additional sensor data, rather than being driven by user need. One example is the growing size of the error codes table in the back of most appliance manuals. These may occasionally add value, but for the most part, I see them as reasons why the product you paid good money for is refusing to do the job it is supposed to.

Here’s an example: the “smart” washing machine that I own doesn’t like low water pressure. It has a number of error codes associated with this. What does it do if the mains pressure drops temporarily – e.g. if simultaneously a toilet is flushed and the kitchen tap is running? It stops dead, displays the error code and refuses to do anything else until you power off the machine at the wall socket, forcing you to start the wash cycle again from scratch. This gets even more annoying if you’d set the timer and come back to a half-washed load. In the days before “smart” appliances, a temporary pressure drop would have either simply caused the water to fill more slowly, or else the machine would pause until pressure returned.

In what way does this behaviour benefit the user? Clearly, it doesn’t, and a few moments thought from a design team that was focussed on user needs, “being your user”, would have resulted in a different requirement specification being handed to the engineering team. It’s a good example of what happens when you start implementing a solution without properly considering the problem you are trying to solve.

My “intelligent” dishwasher has a different but equally maddening feature: it doesn’t like soft water. Its designers have clearly put water saving above all else, and the machine relies on either hard water or very dirty plates to counteract the natural foaming of the detergent tablets. With soft water, if you try washing lightly soiled dishes on a quick wash cycle (as you might expect appropriate), the machine is unable to rinse off the detergent. About 20 minutes into the cycle it skips to the end and gives up, leaving you with foamy, unrinsed plates.

I say unable, when the machine is actually unwilling, as all that is required is the application of sufficient water to rinse off the detergent – which is what I, as a user, then have to do manually. Who is working for whom here? Once again the user’s needs have not been at the top of the designer’s agenda when the requirement specification was passed to the engineering team. A truly smart device would finish the job properly, using as much water as was needed, and possibly suggest using less detergent next time.

Unless designers get a better grip, keeping the end user experience on the agenda, I fear examples of this type of machine behaviour will proliferate. We will see our devices, appliances and perhaps vehicles develop an increasingly long list of reasons why they can’t (won’t) perform the function you bought them for – because they’re having a bad hair day today, which becomes your problem to solve.

All to a refrain of “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Save

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One of the important steps in the Design Council’s recommendations for good design is called “Being Your Users” and is a “Method to put yourself into the position of your user.” Its purpose is “building an understanding of and empathy with the users of your product …” Approaching product design from this perspective is critical to ensuring that the features incorporated are actually beneficial to the user – as opposed to features that are of benefit to the manufacturer, for example, or “because we can” features that have no obvious benefit at all.

It’s clear that domestic appliances are becoming more sophisticated, a trend which is facilitated by the availability of low-cost sensors and processing power. This has some clear benefits, such as the availability of more energy- or water-efficient wash cycles for example. And if designers stay focused on providing something of value to the end user this is a trend to be welcomed.

In practice, I see examples of what looks rather like engineers wondering what else they can do with all this additional sensor data, rather than being driven by user need. One example is the growing size of the error codes table in the back of most appliance manuals. These may occasionally add value, but for the most part, I see them as reasons why the product you paid good money for is refusing to do the job it is supposed to.

Here’s an example: the “smart” washing machine that I own doesn’t like low water pressure. It has a number of error codes associated with this. What does it do if the mains pressure drops temporarily – e.g. if simultaneously a toilet is flushed and the kitchen tap is running? It stops dead, displays the error code and refuses to do anything else until you power off the machine at the wall socket, forcing you to start the wash cycle again from scratch. This gets even more annoying if you’d set the timer and come back to a half-washed load. In the days before “smart” appliances, a temporary pressure drop would have either simply caused the water to fill more slowly, or else the machine would pause until pressure returned.

In what way does this behaviour benefit the user? Clearly, it doesn’t, and a few moments thought from a design team that was focussed on user needs, “being your user”, would have resulted in a different requirement specification being handed to the engineering team. It’s a good example of what happens when you start implementing a solution without properly considering the problem you are trying to solve.

My “intelligent” dishwasher has a different but equally maddening feature: it doesn’t like soft water. Its designers have clearly put water saving above all else, and the machine relies on either hard water or very dirty plates to counteract the natural foaming of the detergent tablets. With soft water, if you try washing lightly soiled dishes on a quick wash cycle (as you might expect appropriate), the machine is unable to rinse off the detergent. About 20 minutes into the cycle it skips to the end and gives up, leaving you with foamy, unrinsed plates.

I say unable, when the machine is actually unwilling, as all that is required is the application of sufficient water to rinse off the detergent – which is what I, as a user, then have to do manually. Who is working for whom here? Once again the user’s needs have not been at the top of the designer’s agenda when the requirement specification was passed to the engineering team. A truly smart device would finish the job properly, using as much water as was needed, and possibly suggest using less detergent next time.

Unless designers get a better grip, keeping the end user experience on the agenda, I fear examples of this type of machine behaviour will proliferate. We will see our devices, appliances and perhaps vehicles develop an increasingly long list of reasons why they can’t (won’t) perform the function you bought them for – because they’re having a bad hair day today, which becomes your problem to solve.

All to a refrain of “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Taking the Train: Minding the Mental Gap

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

5th October 2018

Home » Nicholas Hill

Where do you do your thinking and contemplate the bigger problems that need a clear head?

If you are like me it will rarely be in the office, full as it is of distractions and interruptions. I find being outdoors is productive, especially when running, as it just you and the road – no phone, email, internet or conversation. It enforces a sort of mindfulness, and I quite often come up with a solution while running that has been eluding me. However, it does have the limitation that you can’t read source material and take notes, so only helps for certain types of problems.

For the sort of thinking that requires a combination of reading, deliberation and scribbling of notes, I find the very best place is on the train – particularly one that doesn’t stop often and isn’t overcrowded. And you must get a window seat. Something about seeing the landscape slipping by is great for clearing the mind, and giving thoughts free reign to come and go. It goes without saying that the phone and laptop stay in my briefcase to avoid distraction and ‘busy work’.

It seems appropriate that from a train carriage the landscape is mostly seen in the middle and long distance. You observe the shape of the woods, not the detail of the trees. The arrangement of colours in a station car park, not the individual cars. The way a river bank gradually changes in shape as you cross paths with it over time. The small, hypnotic meanderings of the adjacent, silvery railway tracks, the sleepers and ballast blurred out by speed as you rush by.

This is just what is needed to make sense of the problems of a business – some distance and perspective, and some random stimulus to prompt new thoughts. This is particularly needed at a time when information is becoming ever easier to obtain, but the time to figure out what it means ever more scarce.

Of course you can find yourself down a mental rabbit hole due to something observed through the window. For instance, who decides on the colours of the cars we all buy? A couple of years ago we seemed to have reached ‘peak monochrome’ – all car parks were a dull sea of white, grey, silver and black. Over the previous decade or so all the coloured cars gradually disappeared.

Happily (for someone who loves colour) bright spots of colour have started to appear again in the acres of grey. Small numbers, but very eye-catching. Having observed this very slow cyclic process, I can’t help wonder at the cause: is it driven by fluctuating consumer taste, or by car manufacturers controlling the availability of colours?

Fortunately, for the most part the mind picks up on the problems at hand without any conscious effort, and you reach your destination with the satisfaction of having successfully got to grips with an issue that’s been eluding you.

So next time you have some quiet thinking to do, pack a pad and pen and jump on a train.

Must stop now, I’m approaching Liverpool Street station.

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Where do you do your thinking and contemplate the bigger problems that need a clear head?

If you are like me it will rarely be in the office, full as it is of distractions and interruptions. I find being outdoors is productive, especially when running, as it just you and the road – no phone, email, internet or conversation. It enforces a sort of mindfulness, and I quite often come up with a solution while running that has been eluding me. However, it does have the limitation that you can’t read source material and take notes, so only helps for certain types of problems.

For the sort of thinking that requires a combination of reading, deliberation and scribbling of notes, I find the very best place is on the train – particularly one that doesn’t stop often and isn’t overcrowded. And you must get a window seat. Something about seeing the landscape slipping by is great for clearing the mind, and giving thoughts free reign to come and go. It goes without saying that the phone and laptop stay in my briefcase to avoid distraction and ‘busy work’.

It seems appropriate that from a train carriage the landscape is mostly seen in the middle and long distance. You observe the shape of the woods, not the detail of the trees. The arrangement of colours in a station car park, not the individual cars. The way a river bank gradually changes in shape as you cross paths with it over time. The small, hypnotic meanderings of the adjacent, silvery railway tracks, the sleepers and ballast blurred out by speed as you rush by.

This is just what is needed to make sense of the problems of a business – some distance and perspective, and some random stimulus to prompt new thoughts. This is particularly needed at a time when information is becoming ever easier to obtain, but the time to figure out what it means ever more scarce.

Of course you can find yourself down a mental rabbit hole due to something observed through the window. For instance, who decides on the colours of the cars we all buy? A couple of years ago we seemed to have reached ‘peak monochrome’ – all car parks were a dull sea of white, grey, silver and black. Over the previous decade or so all the coloured cars gradually disappeared.

Happily (for someone who loves colour) bright spots of colour have started to appear again in the acres of grey. Small numbers, but very eye-catching. Having observed this very slow cyclic process, I can’t help wonder at the cause: is it driven by fluctuating consumer taste, or by car manufacturers controlling the availability of colours?

Fortunately, for the most part the mind picks up on the problems at hand without any conscious effort, and you reach your destination with the satisfaction of having successfully got to grips with an issue that’s been eluding you.

So next time you have some quiet thinking to do, pack a pad and pen and jump on a train.

Must stop now, I’m approaching Liverpool Street station.

Save

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Many sectors are already harnessing the power of open innovation, but the UK’s defence industry seems to lag behind. Plextek’s Chief Executive Officer, Nicholas Hill explains the benefits of open innovation for defence manufacturers and highlights examples of successful collaborations.

Brite Innovation Review interviews our Chief Executive Officer, Nicholas Hill.

To read the full article click here.