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17 Secrets of an Inventive Mind

17 Secrets of an Inventive Mind

| On 02, Jun 2015

Originally Published: Nov 3, 1996

Republished: June 2, 2015

by James Kowalick, Ph.D., P.E.
T e c h n i c a l D i r e c t o r
Center for TRIZ Development,
division of Renaissance Leadership Institute, Inc.
P.O. Box 659, 9907 Camper Lane
Oregon House, California, 95962

(916) 692-1944 ~ Fax (916) 692-1946 ~ e-mail:


In 1950 after completing the seventh-grade level in elementary school, I took the first step on a journey of creativity, problem-solving and inventing. Something had always fascinated me about science, mathematics and engineering. I wanted to know how and why things worked, and to understand the principles that made things work. That was the beginning of my determination to become an engineer. It was quite a challenge. Our small school district was buried in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania. We didn’t have much of a science program. The so-called “academic” class at Ringtown High School totaled nine students, some of whom were far more interested in how to correctly milk a cow than in understanding relativity.

Graduating from two top engineering colleges with a bachelor’s and two masters-of-science degrees, and completing a doctoral program in engineering, I found myself running a government defense laboratory, in technical charge of over 300 research, development and production programs. Over the period 1965-1975 I received fifteen U.S. and foreign patents, with hundreds of patents pending. It was in 1978, however, that I discovered the first “secrets” of invention – basic principles of creativity that would be retained and used for the rest of my professional career. Over the next ten years I finely polished and further developed these principles. Then in the early 1990’s I discovered that the Russians, using an approach called “TRIZ,” had also been thinking this way, and that my understanding was complementary to theirs.

This combination of two viewpoints from different continents made my own creative abilities so powerful that by 1994 – forty-four years after the expressed goal to know and understand how and why things worked – I was able, in a matter of hours or days, to rapidly solve virtually any problems or engineering design challenges that came along. I found that the application of TRIZ alone, or the application of my own principles alone, were not as powerful as the Russian/American combination. Many U.S. companies who are my clients have already verified this.

In the meantime, the Russians had developed a hierarchy of TRIZ specialists and experts, from beginners and novices through brown belts and black belts. There was even a very special category that only a few Russians were privy to: the “TRIZ-Master.” I spent years visiting, reading the works of, talking with, and corresponding with Russian TRIZ experts. I recently found that my own inventive and problem-solving ability was at least equal to, but in some instances superior to, those few whom the Russians were calling TRIZ-Masters. Is it possible to measure the level of a person’s inventive and problem-solving capability? There is a way – by results. For the last six years I’ve been advising and training the technical staffs of the most forward-thinking corporations in the USA, helping them to create next-generation products that capture the marketplace. I’m training a few technical professionals to be black belts. As the only American TRIZ-master, I’ve worked closely with creative people from client companies to conceive over a thousand inventions, many of which have resulted in patent applications and patents.

A handful of good, legitimate, TRIZ consultants practice world-wide, but there are also a few “scam” TRIZ organizations, whose highly aggressive practices include making false claims and glowing promises to potential client organizations (sometimes via Internet!), taking client’s monies, and then not being able to follow through and deliver (they even use legal intimidation methods on their own customers). These few scam organizations are giving TRIZ a bad name. The TRIZ community knows who they are. Buyers beware!

The Center for TRIZ Development (CTD) is translating over twenty-one TRIZ books from Russian to English, as well as writing a few of its own. We’re teaching TRIZ principles to children in grade school and high school, and further developing the TRIZ approach to make its use by engineering designers more productive. In this report we reveal some of the secrets of invention and creativity that I personally have accumulated and developed over the last few decades. Those secrets that come directly from Russia have appeared in print there for public use. CTD’s in-company training classes address basic and advanced TRIZ topics. All classes are experiential, which means that the participants actually apply TRIZ to solve their real (company) problems during the class.

I have two purposes in writing this report:

(1) to disseminate the principles, practices and secrets of the creative process to as broad an American audience as possible, so that American organizations can continue to lead the world in technology and free enterprise, and

(2) to offer engineers, designers, inventors, and other technical professionals a breakthrough approach for solving complex technical problems and design challenges.


The most powerful creative techniques, tricks and approaches of this century are presented below. A mere listing of these secrets of invention is inadequate to suddenly make everyone an inventor. These secrets will, however, raise the creative capability of any serious reader. They invite the reader to dig deeper into the general subject of TRIZ.

Secret 1. The real problem to be solved is rarely the same as the problem initially posed. It is necessary to establish an accurate, specific problem statement – a “model” of the problem to be solved. This is the most important aspect of problem solving: knowing what and where the problem is. Often the solution is realized simply by making the effort to understand the real problem. The process of defining the problem is facilitated through the use of a problem-defining procedure, or algorithm. Algorithms (called ARIZ) already exist for accomplishing this. ARIZ is the Russian acronym for “Algorithm for the Solution of Inventive-Problems.” Existing Russian problem-solving algorithms are not very user-friendly (i.e., not easy to use). Their language is excessively dialectic – so “logical,” that the algorithms become almost incomprehensible to the average user. The Center for TRIZ Development has developed problem-solving procedures that are clear, simple, concise, easy to use, and reliable. “ARIZ 1991” is one of the latest Russian algorithms in use to arrive at problem definitions.

Secret 2. In order to make the problem solving process easier, problems or design challenges are expressed as “functions.” Engineering is really all about functions. The main purpose of a technical system is to satisfy one or more functions. The result is a “form:” a technical design (technical system) that satisfies the required function(s). Architects know that “Form follows function.” The use of the word “function” implies that the technical system “does” something. The engineer-designer’s task is to conceive and build the form (i.e., the design) so that

(1) each function works reliably, and

(2) the design as a whole is perceived by its user (customer) as offering “value.”

Consider the traction system for an automobile. In functional form, the design challenge is expressed as “tire grips road.” The functional requirement is “to grip the road.” One design-form that satisfies this function is the common “tire.”

Secret 3. Technical systems often have many functions, some of which are useful, and others that are useless or even harmful. An important task for the designer is to determine which function to work on first. For example, task number one for the designer may be to design an improved tire – one which better satisfies the function “tire grips road.” In this case the designer’s main task is to improve, increase, or intensify the “gripping” action, while keeping other system requirements and constraints in mind. On the other hand, the designer’s task may be to eliminate or reduce the useless (harmful) function, “road wears tire.” It is important to know what function to work on. Towards this purpose, the approach called “functional analysis” or “functional cost analysis” is important. Functional analysis is an approach that has been successfully employed as a part of value analysis and value engineering. The techniques of functional analysis include Functional Tree Diagrams and System Tree Diagrams.

Secret 4. Pruning a technical system is one of the highest forms of creativity. A technical system consists of parts whose purpose is to carry out various system functions. From a customer or user point of view, the “value” of a technical system lies in

(1) its ability to satisfy required functions at a high level of reliability, and

(2) its price (cost).

From an organizational point of view, this means that the organization’s technical challenge is to assure reliable functions at minimal costs. Total cost decomposes into the costs of each of the individual parts. To increase the value offered to customers, parts are eliminated or “pruned,” without eliminating their required functions. If a specific part is pruned, then there may be another part, or sub-system, or system, that can satisfy the function of the part being pruned. Exploring pruning possibilities by using functional notations described in 3 above, is an important aspect of applying functional analysis to creative problem solving.

Secret 5. Solving technical design conflicts by making tradeoffs is not as useful as stating the objective in the form of a “contradiction,” and meeting the contradictory requirements by design. Consider the design conflict of an ordinary dispensable razor. The razor must be sharper in order to deliver a closer shave. Given an overly sharp razor blade, the shaver often cuts himself. The technical conflict: “When I use a sharper blade for a closer shave, I cut myself.” The typical engineering solution to conflicts is compromise: deliver a blade not quite sharp enough to cut skin, but sharp enough for a “reasonably” close shave.

A contradiction, on the other hand, is not a tradeoff contest between two features or functions. In a contradiction, one part of the system (in this case, the razor blade) demands diametrically opposed properties or characteristics: “The razor should be sharp and dull.” Stating the problem as a contradiction pushes the designer to “go for broke,” and not be trapped by ordinary (tradeoff) thinking. Contradictory thinking is “out of the usual box” thinking. Once contradictory thinking becomes a habit, the designer is far less likely to consider looking for partial (tradeoff) solutions. Instead he’ll look for higher-level solutions. When this happens, the designer’s productivity is significantly increased.

Secret 6. Identify the “local zone” of the problem. Once again, consider the “shaving with a razor” problem discussed above. Where does the problem really exist? What is the local zone where the “rubber meets the road?” In this example, the function is “cutting,” and the shaving operation occurs between two objects: the razor’s edge, and a whisker. The function is “razor’s edge cuts whisker.” This operation occurs at the edge of the razor, when it is physically touching a whisker. Where this happens is the local zone of the problem. It is “where the whisker-cutting action is.” If the problem were simply to improve “whisker-cutting,” this would describe the local zone of the problem. If the problem is to provide close, effective whisker-cutting, while not cutting the skin, we might have to define a different “local zone.” Each problem has its own local zone, and it is important to know what and where it is, in order to effectively solve the problem.

Secret 7. Often a problem can be solved, or a design challenge met, by using the idea of “separation in time and space.” Where a technical system is subjected to contradictory requirements, those requirements might be met by somehow separating them “in time or space.” Example: a structural foundation is constructed at the base of a rectangular hole, eight feet below ground level. The foundation’s function is to support a very heavy piece of equipment, weighing several tons. Cranes to lift the equipment and deliver it down into the hole are temporarily unavailable, but means are available to move the heavy equipment laterally along the surface of the earth. What can be done?

One way to express this challenge as a contradiction is: “The hole should be empty (to accommodate the heavy equipment that is supported by the structural foundation), and the hole should be full (so the heavy equipment can be moved onto – on top of – the hole, without being damaged by falling into the hole).” Separation-in-space, for this problem, means “The hole at one location is full, to allow the equipment to be loaded over the structural foundation, and the hole at another location is empty, allowing for the equipment to be lowered into the hole.” Unfortunately, the “location” we are referring to is the same location – the hole cannot be simultaneously full and empty – so the use of the separation-in-space principle will not work here.

Applying separation-in-time to this problem means that “At one time, the hole is full, to allow the equipment to be loaded over the structural foundation, and at another time it is empty, to allow the equipment to be lowered all the way down to the structural foundation.” This could work because the steps of

(1) moving the equipment over (onto) the hole position, and then

(2) lowering the equipment into the hole are sequential – not simultaneous.

Something must be in the hole when we move the equipment onto the top of the “hole,” and that “something” must not be there, or must gradually disappear, during the lowering process. What could this “something” be? It has to be a substance that “is strong when it is there, and becomes progressively weaker as it disappears.”

There are a many candidates for such a substance. Any solid which undergoes a phase change to either a liquid or a gas: solid helium; solid methanol; dry ice (solid carbon dioxide); ice; or, a combination of these. Dry ice, for example, has the advantage of readily changing phase by itself, under almost any environmental conditions, to gaseous carbon dioxide. Dry ice may be too expensive, and the phase transformation may take too long. Therefore ordinary ice (e.g., blocks of ice) serves the purpose. Ordinary water is strong in its solid (ice) form, able to take the weight of the heavy equipment, and it becomes progressively weaker as it melts, automatically lowering the equipment into place (with some lateral adjustments from above, perhaps). The melting process could be accelerated by external heating if required, e.g., by pouring warm or hot water into the clearance between the ice and the wall of the hole. The principle of separation-in-space solves this problem at a relatively low expenditure.

Secret 8. Formulation of the “Ideal Final Result” (or IFR) achieved from solving a problem, is an incredible motivator towards

(1) solving it, and

(2) solving it at very high inventive level.

The IFR acts as a goal and a guide to the designer, preventing him from straying from the superior-solution path. Straying into parts of the “solution domain” that are removed from the IFR, means accepting inferior or “patch-work” solutions. The ideal solution is more powerful than all other conceivable or yet unimaginable solutions. By accepting the IFR as the goal, the designer/inventor becomes “attached” to the best possible avenue of solution, or solution path. A correctly formulated IFR tasks one of the elements – from a conflicting pair of elements – to remove the harmful (or useless, or unnecessary, or superfluous) effect, while that element retains its ability to provide or carry out the primary function. In other words, with the IFR the necessary effect or function is achieved without bringing into the technical system any outside means whatsoever.

The IFR is closely related to the concepts of “the ideal product,” “the ideal process,” and “the ideal substance.” The ideal product is one that does not exist, but nevertheless achieves the desired effect. The ideal process does not expend energy and time, but accomplishes the necessary effect (in a way that is self-regulating). The ideal substance does not exist, but its function is satisfied.

This eighth secret is so powerful that it necessitates more discussion. “Traditional” engineering practice includes a willingness to sacrifice something, or to pay something additional (e.g., one’s time, energy, extra costs, etc.), in return for achieving certain effects or improvements in effects: “The chip generates too much heat during operation. We have to add additional materials and material configurations capable of releasing the heat generated. In order to do this, the investment in materials, taking up more space to accommodate these materials, and therefore adding more weight is a small payment to make for the improvement we receive . . . and, if this doesn’t work . . . we can certainly add a small air-blowing fan to cool the chip.” . . . etc., etc. That is traditional thinking. IFR thinking says “Generation of heat by the chip is not desirable. This generation should ideally go away by itself. So let it eliminate itself!” Sometimes an unwanted effect can be eliminated by merging it with another unwanted effect, or by actually making the harmful effect beneficial – perhaps serving some other purpose.

It is important to note that ideality does not mean unreality. In many instances the IFR can be fully achieved. Sometimes the “ideal” product is achieved by having its function performed by another product or another part of the system, or together with another product or part. Sometimes the “ideal” process is achieved by preliminarily performing the necessary action, so there is no need to waste time and energy at the “necessary” moment. It is important that the IFR be kept in mind at all times during the problem-solving process.

Secret 9. Inventive problems are those that are based upon conflicts (see Secret 5); all technical conflicts can be restated using a “universal language of conflicts.” Over the period 1946 and into the 1970’s, the Russians had been examining the global patent collection with several aims in mind, one of which was to “universalize the language of engineering parameters and characteristics used to address the important attributes of a technical system.” The result was a listing of “39 standard features.” Three engineers or scientists might describe a particular technical conflict using quite different words – and all three descriptions could be entirely correct. Genrikh Altschuller, however, posed the question: “Can all technical conflicts be boiled down (or condensed) to only a few, universal technical conflicts?” In other words, can all possible technical conflicts in the world be categorized into a limited number of “universal” conflicts, expressed in a “universal” parametric language?

The answer to this question is “Yes!” Altschuller and his associates completed the Herculean task of establishing the minimum number of standard technical features that would, as a group, serve as category-titles for all possible engineering parameters. These he called the “39 standard features,” and they are listed below:

The 39 Standard Features

  1. WEIGHT (of an object that can move, or is moving)
  2. WEIGHT (of an object that is still or can’t move)
  3. DIMENSION (of an object that can move, or is moving)
  4. DIMENSION (of an object that is still or can’t move)
  5. AREA (of an object that can move, or is moving)
  6. AREA (of an object that is still or can’t move)
  7. VOLUME (of an object that can move, or is moving)
  8. VOLUME (of an object that is still or can’t move)
  9. SPEED
  10. FORCE
  12. SHAPE
  15. DURABILITY (of an object that can move, or is moving)
  16. DURABILITY (of an object that is still or can’t move)
  19. ENERGY (used by of an object that can move, or is moving)
  20. ENERGY (used by of an object that is still or can’t move)
  21. POWER
  30. HARMFUL EFFECTS (on object)

It is beyond the scope of this report to rigorously define each of these standard features, although they each have a discrete definition. A limited number – 1482 – of standard technical conflicts describe all possible engineering or technical conflicts. The significance of Inventive Secret Number 9 is that any one of these standard conflicts can represent dozens or even hundreds of ordinary engineering conflicts, and these “ordinary” conflicts have several common characteristics helpful to the designer. It behooves the conceptual engineer or designer or inventor to learn the 39 standard features well, and to practice categorizing ordinary parameters or characteristics into standard features.

Secret 10. There are 40 inventive principles behind all inventive problems (problems that have technical conflicts). When “applied” to the important elements or objects of a technical system, these inventive principles solve complex problems, and great new designs are achieved. Altschuller and his associates discovered, one by one, the 40 basic principles that make the transition from problem to solution possible. They did this by examining the global patent collection. The list of the 40 inventive principles follow:

The 40 Inventive Principles

  21. “SKIP”
  27. SERVICE LIFE – cheap/short vs. expensive/long

Each of these forty principles has a detailed definition and explanation, and there is a documented listing of examples of inventions that illustrate the application of each principle listed above. It is beyond the scope of this report to discuss each principle in detail; however a few principles have been chosen for discussion below.

Principle No. 2: The Takeout Principle. Given two objects that have a harmful or useless or superfluous or generally undesirable interaction (function), the takeout principle tells us to “consider removing (taking out) that portion or part or property or action (of one of objects) which causes the undesirable interaction, while retaining the portion or part or property or action which is required for the useful interaction (function).” For example, if a light source is too hot to touch, use plastic “light pipe” to “take out” or separate the “hot light” from the location where the light is needed (providing “cool light”). Another example: locate a noisy power source away from the point where its energy will be applied. Still another example: solve a “too much weight” problem by taking out of a solid structural component the mass which only minimally contributes to the structure’s strength, as in an “I-Beam.”

Principle No. 7. Nested Doll or Matreshka Principle. Place one object inside another, and then place that object, in turn, inside another. For example: automobile aerials; presentation pointers; ball-point pens.

Principle No. 13. The Other Way Round Principle. Invert the action(s) used to solve the problem (e.g., instead of heating an object, cool it, etc.). For example: instead of attempting to pre-align a stack of unaligned copy papers, using various handling motions with the help of a flat table surface (prior to placing them into the printer’s copy-paper holder), place the unaligned stack of papers into the copy-paper holder first, and quickly move (vibrate) the holder with the stack of paper in it. The papers in the stack become instantly and precisely aligned!

Principle No. 14. Spheroids or Curvature Principle. Move from flat surfaces to spherical ones; from cubic or rectangular shapes to ball shapes. For example: a beverage can has to hold an internal pressure of 90 psi, yet the quantity of aluminum used has to be decreased. When the bottom of the can is thin, the internal pressure causes it to bulge out, and it does not stand stably. When the bottom of the can is thick, it resists the internal pressure and does not bulge out, but the extra aluminum adds too much cost. The solution is to make the bottom of the can thin, and to curve it inwards with a dome-like shape; the dome-shape will withstand the internal pressure.

Principle No. 17. Add Another Dimension. Example: A circular, manual adjustment knob, attached to a threaded rod which is surrounded by a strong spring, is used to adjust the force or load acting upon another object. Because of the strong spring, the adjustment knob is difficult to turn, especially by people with limited hand strength. If the pitch on the threads of the rod are changed in a favorable direction, the knob becomes easy to turn, but many more turns are now required. What to do? The solution is to make the adjustment direction perpendicular to the spring direction. Such an arrangement makes the knob easy to turn, and just a slight angular knob-turn will move the spring out of its plane, causing significantly greater changes in spring force.

Principle No. 22. Blessing in Disguise Principle. Examples: (1) Use refuse for energy; (2) Make “grappa,” an Italian liqueur, from the seeds discarded after the grape juice is separated from the grape skins and seeds. (3) Use fire to prevent the spreading of fire, as is being done by the California Department of Forestry.

Principle No. 26. The Copying Principle. Instead of an unavailable, expensive, fragile object, use simpler and inexpensive copies of the object. Example: Use of a virtual reality training system to train pilots to fly.

Principle No. 27. Cheap, Short-Life Objects. Replace an expensive object with many inexpensive objects. Example: Contact lens companies used to concentrate primarily on improving the quality and features of contact lenses, until one competitor decided to make disposable contact lens. That company instantly captured a much larger market share.

Designers seeking “next-generation” designs can apply these principles, one by one, to the objects in a technical system. By this process alone, they can achieve next generation designs. This is time-consuming, but as a creative exercise, this practice is well worth it!

Secret 11. For each standard conflict, there is an inventive principle (or several inventive principles) that can be used to resolve the standard conflict. The ultimate result is a high level invention. There is an inventive relationship between the 1482 (i.e., 39 x 38) standard conflicts and the 40 inventive principles. This relationship is expressed in the form of a matrix-table. The matrix-table includes three separate but important pieces of information. On the left is the “improving standard feature” used to solve a problem. Along the top is the “worsening standard feature” – the feature that becomes worse as a result of using the improving standard feature to reach a solution (see Secret 9 for the list of standard features). Inside the matrix are (by number, covering a range from 1 to 40) the inventive principles that can be applied to one or both of the interacting objects of the technical system, to achieve a vastly improved technical system (see Secret 10 for the list of numbered inventive principles).

Example: Consider the problem of tool wear. Large tools such as jack-hammer points, or teeth on shovels, experience extensive wear under the conditions they are used. One solution (the improving feature) to this problem is to encase the tooth in a sacrificial cover, which then wears instead of the point or tooth. This solution adds more cost and complication to the technical system (and that is the worsening feature). The conflict is: when we solve the problem of tooth wear, by adding a sacrificial cover, the system gets more complicated and costs more. The next step is to convert the improving and the worsening features into standard features. When we add a sacrificial cover, we directly change the area of contact of the tool with the earth or stones being worked on. Before the cover was added, the “area” of the tooth exposed to wear was very high and this caused maximum wear. After the cover was added, no tool area is exposed, because the cover itself is exposed to wear. Depending upon the particular design, the tooth may be considered to be either a “moving object” or a “still object.” The standard improving feature will be either #5, “area of a moving object” or #6, “area of a still object.” The standard worsening feature is # 36 “system complexity.” So the standard conflict is either a “5-36” or a “6-36” standard conflict.

The matrix-table suggests that the following inventive principles will lead to the solution of tooth or tool-point wear: #1, SEGMENTATION; #13, OTHER WAY ROUND; #14, SPHEROIDALITY; #18, USE OF MECHANICAL VIBRATIONS; and/or #36, USE PHASE TRANSITIONS. Each of these inventive principles needs to be applied to the main objects of the system function. For the present problem, there are two “objects:” the tooth, and the earth (or stone). The undesirable function we are working on is EARTH (or STONE) WEARS. The aim is to reduce this function. The inventive principles cited should be analyzed to determine how they can be used to reduce wear.

Applying all the inventive principles cited above to the problem might take a few hours, or perhaps a little longer if we do a thorough job. Let’s list some solutions that come to mind immediately.

(1) If the teeth are a monolithic part of the shovel, we could “segment” the shovel design into individual teeth, so that if one breaks, we won’t have to replace the entire shovel – just the broken tooth.

(2) An individual tooth could be segmented into several teeth to reduce the frictional stress experienced by any one tooth.

(3) The “other way round” principle can be applied to the teeth, by allowing them to move (rather than be fixed). Instead of the tooth being the “active” object that penetrates earth or stone, the earth or stone itself is “invited” to move the tooth. This makes the tooth more flexible and less rigid, and therefore less prone to breaking.

(4) Vibrating the tooth in accordance with the resonant frequency of the typical earth or stone structure these tools are used on, will significantly reduce wear. There are several other solutions, but we will not discuss them here. The more principles that contribute to a specific solution, the higher the level of that solution.

The transition from standard feature conflicts to inventive principles is a powerful problem-solving technique. It is based upon the idea that standard conflicts are universal – no matter what technology area or discipline the standard conflict comes from, the same inventive principles lead to the resolution of the conflict.

Secret 12. There are five levels of inventions. All inventions can be categorized as one of these five levels.

Not all inventions are the same. In fact, five different levels of inventions have been established, differentiated by their “quality.” The quality, or elegance, of an invention can be categorized and described by



(3) the SOURCE OF THE SOLUTION (where did it come from?).

It can be determined that approximately 30% of the world’s patents are in Level I, 55% in Level II, less than 10 % in Level III, about 3 to 4 % in Level IV, and less than 1 % in Level V.

If the invention, or solution, is compared with the system as it existed before the invention was made, the degree of change can be observed. The system remains unchanged (or little changed) in a Level I invention. An overflow tank that was incapable of holding the required excess fluid, has its tank capacity increased. Many such Level I “inventions” do not deserve to be called inventions. Often there are several “inventors” credited with the invention. In Level II inventions, the previous system has been modified in some way, but for Level III inventions, a radical change has been made, either in the entire system, in a sub-system, or in a significant part. Besides major change(s), a level IV invention has a broad functional scope of applicability. Level V inventions are true discoveries based on previously unknown information.

The “trial and error” process in well known in R&D and in scientific investigations. How many relatively useless trials did the inventors (or their predecessors or contemporaries) have to go through before the invention was conceived? For a Level I invention, only a few. For a Level II invention, dozens of trials. For a Level III, hundreds of trials. It is not unusual for Level IV inventions to take many years, even decades, to achieve, along with thousands or even tens of thousands of trials before a solution is reached. Many of Thomas Edison’s inventions fall into the Level III and IV categories. Level V inventions often take efforts by two or more generations of investigators before the solution is reached – and hundreds of thousands to millions of trials. This will be the case when someone discovers a cure for cancer, or the common cold.

Where do the solutions for different level inventions come from? In the case of Level I inventions, from the designer’s own specialty field – a standard, mechanical-engineering, fluid-flow solution for a fluid flow problem. Level II solutions come from the same branch of technology. How do we measure the mechanical response of a plastic-elastic material? By equipment routinely employed in the materials engineering lab for research on plastics. Level III solutions make use of technologies in addition to, or other than, the technology associated with the problem – e.g., the use of magnetism to solve a problem in kinetics. Solutions to Level IV problems come from the realm of physics, chemistry or geometry – usually from little known or little understood effects and phenomena. And, Level V solutions require going beyond the limits of contemporary science. They actually require hitherto unknown data and information.

It is interesting that approximately 85 percent of the world’s patented inventions are either Levels I or II. Fewer than 10 percent of the global patent collection are at Level III. Only 3 to 4 % of all patents are Level IV, and the total number of Level V patents account for a fraction of 1 percent. Yet the truly revolutionary patents, inventions and discoveries have come from Levels III, IV and V. Is it possible to achieve a high-level invention in only a few trials, without having to go through the fruitless “errors” that are a part of the “trial and error” process still practiced in corporate R&D programs? The answer is “Yes!” – by using TRIZ. To achieve an inventive solution which ordinarily takes years or decades, in just a few hours or days: how would that capability change a company’s relationship to its competitors and to the marketplace? It would be a company breakthrough.

One of the consequences of secret number 12 is that, with TRIZ, all higher level problems are transformed, as it were, to the small number of trials involved in solving first or second level problems. Yet the solutions represent high level inventions.

Secret 13. The necessary requirement for a function is that it have three elements. If there are fewer, there is no function. All technical and engineering systems – products or processes – exist to satisfy certain functions. There is a strong relationship between the parts of a technical system and a function of the technical system. This relationship is expressed in the form of a “triad” of three interacting elements. The three interacting elements consist of two “substances” and a “field.” The field is what enables the two substances to come together in the right way. A substance can be anything from a sub-atomic particle to an atom to a molecule to a solid object to a subsystem like the transmission of a car. An aluminum beverage can is a technical system that often contains beverages and gases. One of the results obtained from this system is the “stiffening” of the beverage can wall due to the internal pressure. The function associated with this is


This function illustrates the useful interaction that occurs between the liquid beverage and the can wall. Note that every function has the form: “Subject acts on Object,” which can be described as “The active action of a tool, or instrument, on the passive object being worked on.” The form of this function has the following sequence: “SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT.” The “object” is the element that is being worked on. In TRIZ, this is often referred to as the “artifact,” or “Substance 1,” or merely “S1.” The “subject” is the element that is doing the work, or performing the functional action. This is often called the “instrument,” the “tool,” “Substance 2,” or merely “S2.”

These two elements, the beverage and the can wall, are not enough for the stiffening effect to happen. There has to be a third element (often invisible or relatively un-noticeable) that “enables” the function to occur. This third element is called the “field,” or the “enabling element,” or simply “F.” The combination of these three elements, in diagrammatic form, is called an “S-Field” or “Su-Field” (for “Substance-Field”) Diagram, as shown below. A negative or undesirable effect, such as bursting the can wall with too much internal pressure, is shown by asterisks that indicate the presence of an accompanying, harmful (or useless) function: Using this S-Field language often simplifies the designer’s or problem-solver’s task. S-Fields can also be used to describe solutions for functions that have deficiencies, or to indicate the form or structure of “next-generation” concepts. In other words, TRIZ through the language of S-Fields is capable of technology forecasting that is both rapid and highly accurate. For the beverage can “bursting” problem, TRIZ predicts that one conceptual “solution” is to add a third substance, S3: This is one “generic” solution to the problem. A specific solution from this generic “prompt” is the addition to the outside of the can wall, of a thin, smooth, strong, plastic coating (S3). The plastic material replaces some of the aluminum wall, thereby reducing overall cost. The plastic material also more than makes up for the additional strength required to overcome the bursting problem posed by the high internal pressure. Additionally, the smooth plastic surface lends itself well to being printed upon – a requirement for beverage can exterior walls.

The language of S-Fields is a powerful aide to conceptual design.

Secret 14. The General Evolutionary Staircase of Technical Systems. Every engineering system follows a predictable path towards some “ideal system” with “ideal functions” and “ideal characteristics.” There are certain system “measurables” used to describe where a system is on its path from non-ideality towards ideality. Given a product or a process – i.e., an “engineering system” – these measurables are used to predict, in the form of detailed design concepts, what the next-generation design will look like, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Each measurable path is a measure of technical system evolution. Progressing along each path is equivalent to improving an existing system, or to creating a new one. The seven measures of evolution indicated are:

  1. Degree of dimensionality of the system or its objects;
  2. Degree of system multiplicity;
  3. The physical state or phase of the system or any of its objects;
  4. Degree of dynamic capability of the system and its parts and objects;
  5. Type and nature of applied frequency of actions from or by or to the system, its parts and objects;
  6. The nature, level and dimensionality of the system, its functions, and its properties; and
  7. The degree of “voidness” of the system, its parts and/or its objects.

Engineering systems exist to accomplish functions. As engineering systems evolve, they accomplish these functions in more “elegant” ways, i.e., in a “higher quality” manner. The combined, general measurable for this evolution might be called “The Overall Quality of a Concept Design.” The seven paths to ideality for any technical system are indicated in the wheel chart above, and discussed below.

(1) DEGREE OF DIMENSIONALITY OF THE SYSTEM, ITS PARTS, OR OBJECTS. One specific measure of an engineering system’s (product or process) quality, is the dimensionality of the system, or its parts, or objects: by changing from a zero-D (point) situation to a 1D (line) situation; or from 1D (line) to 2D (plane); of from 2D (plane) to 3D (solid/volume). Millions of inventions are based on this pattern. For example, consider the seemingly simple, although costly logging-industry problem of the log capacity of lakes. Water-logged timber (log jams) are only too common. From a “dimensionality” point of view, the mass of individual logs floating on the lake form a planar-like, two-dimensional structure. The solution suggested is to “Go into another dimension.” The function is log storage capacity in lakes. By tying enough logs together in bundles, so that the cross-sectional area of the log-bundle ends exceeds its “sideways” cross-sectional area, the log bundle will float in the lake with the logs oriented vertically. This significantly increases the lake’s log storage capacity. Changing the dimensionality of a system or its parts or objects generally improves system functions in many types of engineering systems.

(2) DEGREE OF SYSTEM MULTIPLICITY. If an engineering system or sub-system is a mono-system, it evolves by changing it to a bi-system. If it is a bi-system (or mono-system), it evolves by changing it to a poly-system.” There are many examples in the patent literature where the solution to a problem lay in changing the multiplicity of the system, sub-system, or objects in the system. For example, it is difficult and costly to trim, cut shape or polish the edges of thin glass plates, because they are prone to cracking or breaking. By transforming a single glass plate (i.e., a “mono-system,”) into a stack of glass plates, productivity of the operation is significantly raised, and breakages and other defects are reduced to zero. Many problems can be solved, and many complex engineering challenges met, simply by applying this principle of increasing the multiplicity of the system, to products and processes. As the system moves closer to becoming a poly-system, its degree of ideality increases – along with the degree of ideality of system functions.

(3) THE PHYSICAL STATES OR PHASES OF THE SYSTEM, ITS PARTS, OR ITS OBJECTS. An engineering system moves towards ideality as its parts or elements become more mobile. One way of accomplishing this is by changing the physical state or phase of a system or its objects. For example, gaseous objects can accomplish what more inflexible, solid objects cannot. Many patented inventions are based on the ability of an engineering system’s objects to change states when required.

(4) DYNAMIC CAPABILITY OF THE SYSTEM, ITS PARTS AND OBJECTS. This evolutionary path is about the system’s becoming more “dynamic,” or flexible to required conditions. The characteristic of flexibility, in addressing changeable functions, is a highly desirable attribute for an engineering system to have. Flexibility means going from a rigid, immovable, immobile system (or part or element) to a system (or parts or elements) that is more flexible (i.e., one that is “hinged” or “jointed,” or beyond that to many hinges or joints, or beyond that to elastic (i.e., infinitely jointed), or even to a subtly elegant flexibility made possible through the use of fields (i.e., electromagnetic, electro-static, etc.) instead of substances.

(5) TYPE AND NATURE OF APPLIED FREQUENCY OF ACTIONS FROM, BY, OR TO THE SYSTEM, ITS PARTS, OR ITS ELEMENTS. ll engineering systems include action or actions. A system action may take the form of an “interaction” between” two parts, or between a part and something outside the system. As an action moves from being “continuous” to “vibrating” to “vibrating at a resonant frequency” to “standing waves,” the system and its functions approach the ideal system. The action of “breaking-up boulders” is accomplished by huge jack-hammers attached to heavy mobile machinery. A continuous “sledge-hammer” type blow may be effective if the blow is delivered with high enough intensity. Vibrating the blows is far more effective. If the frequency of vibration of the blows delivered are matched to the resonant frequency of the boulder and its surroundings, the boulder appears to “explode” into fragments with seemingly little effort. Furthermore, controlling internal stress wave formation by taking into consideration boulder geometry and points of application of the blows, the additions and subtractions of wave-fronts can be put to brilliant advantage. The type of applied frequency of action is yet another path of evolution towards the ideal system.

(6) NATURE, TYPE AND DIMENSIONALITY OF THE SYSTEM, ITS FUNCTIONS, AND ITS PROPERTIES. A starting point for an engineering system in its path towards ideality is for a bi-system or poly-system to have one particular function (i.e., a mono-function). The next step in its evolutionary path is for the mono-function to have “biased” properties, i.e., the capability to simultaneously perform a given function in varying ways (such as a sewing machine capable of sewing two seams at once, with different thread or stitch sizes). A still higher evolutionary level is for the system to have poly-functions (e.g., a sewing machine folds the cloth and also sews it). The highest evolutionary step would be a system which has opposite functions (e.g., the sewing machine not only sews two segments of the cloth together, it also cuts/trims the cloth, which is an “opposite” function than joining/sewing). The nature, type and dimensionality of the system, its properties, and its functions, is yet another path of evolution towards the ideal system.

(7) DEGREE OF VOIDNESS OF THE SYSTEM, ITS PARTS AND ELEMENTS. The status of an engineering system, on its way towards the ideal system, can be determined by the degree of “VOIDNESS” in the system, its parts, its elements or objects. The lowest-level system/ part/ object has no voidness: it is a “monolith” – one solid piece. The next step in its evolution would be the inclusion of a large void; the next higher engineering system contains many voids, followed by a porous system. Moving more towards “dynamicity,” the voids are seen in terms of fields, i.e., the voids are electronic “holes” – with semi-conductor properties, or electro-magnetic properties, or other “field-related” properties.

These seven evolutionary paths appear in the form of S-curves – graphical measures of evolution of technical systems, describing the life of the system, from infancy, to rapid rise, to maturity and ultimately, old age.

Secret 15. Every Technical System (i.e., Product or Process) has Four Parts. Every engineering system – each product, process or measuring and detection system – has four critical parts or sub-systems. Missing one of these parts, the system will not work. Even if the four parts are present, the system may still have a long way to go until it functions reliably. The four parts have generic names which sound like the parts of an automobile, but they apply universally to all engineering systems and subsystems: the ENGINE, the TRANSMISSION, the LIMBS, and the CONTROLS (or “control system”). Given a particular engineering system, it may be difficult to identify these four parts. This difficulty arises because of not enough practice in “system thinking.

The engine is the source of energy for the system. All technical systems require a source of energy in order to function. The “engine” for the first Wright Brothers airplane was gravity, because they had to use an incline to achieve the necessary velocity for it to take off. There was room for improvement in the engine of the first airplane.

The transmission is the part of the system that connects the energy source (i.e., the engine) with the working part or parts of the system. Gravity provided the energy for the airplane to move, and this energy was transformed into kinetic energy of the airplane as a whole. The transmission system included a “track” interacting with the body (wheels) of the airplane, to provide for the plane to receive gravity’s free takeoff energy, by accelerating the plane from a velocity of zero to the final velocity. This final velocity was then used by the working parts of the plane.

For the “lift” function, the working parts of the Wright Brothers airplane were the wings, which interact with air to produce flight. The wing surfaces, then, act as the “limbs” of the airplane. They do the work for the technical system called the airplane. The engine provides the energy. The transmission (the near vertical track) transformed (carried) this energy from the engine which furnished rotational energy, to the entire airplane body in the form of kinetic energy. Flight was possible because, considering the wings as being fixed, high-velocity air moved over and under the wings. Curvature differences of the top and bottom of the wings creates lift, because air below the wings travels at lower velocity, and therefore higher pressure, than the air above. This flow effect is called Bernoulli’s Principle, after its discoverer.

The reliability of the Wright Brother’s airplane to produce flight, was in large part the function of a human being – the pilot – who interacted with the plane’s structure by moving his weight in the direction desired for the required effect. In large part, the pilot served as the control system – the fourth part of this technical system called the airplane.

The Wright Brother’s plane worked, but it did not work so well. It had the four required parts that qualified it to be a technical system, but there was plenty of room for improvement. The plane had been born, but it had a long way to go.

Secret 16. All engineering systems have the possibility of moving through four stages of evolution. These four stages of evolution are discussed below.

After mental conception of the idea for a system, the inventor faces the task of combining the right parts for the system so the system works effectively. For example: should the engine of the automobile be nuclear powered? Maybe not! Maybe a gasoline or electric engine is the right approach. This procedure is the first stage of evolution of the technical system: SYNTHESIS. Synthesis means finding the right combination of parts. When the right parts are found, there is a design recipe: “The can-opener will be operated manually, will employ a cutting knife, will be guided by the ridge of the can, and will magnetically attract the can lid after the lid is separated from the can body.” Or, “The “horseless carriage” will have four wheels, and will be shaped like a “Surrey – a two-seated, pleasure carriage normally drawn by horses. The top will be covered in tent-like fashion with a protective material to prevent sunburn.” Once the initial “workable” formula is decided upon, the first stage (synthesis) of the system is over. That’s the good news – the system works. The bad news is that the system doesn’t work very well.

When the new or improved system, product or process – doesn’t work very well, it doesn’t mean that the system is a design failure. It simply means that the system needs improvement. This is the second stage of evolution of a technical system – the IMPROVING stage. All new or improved systems go through an improvement stage. Whenever a new, workable system emerges from the SYNTHESIS stage, the four major parts of the system (engine, transmission, limbs and control system) are not equally reliable. If each of these parts were to receive a report card grade, one or two of them might receive a “C” or a “B.” If a part received a “D through F”, the system wouldn’t work well at all, and the system has not even completed its SYNTHESIS stage.

The first plane to fly flew by manual, leg-operated power (i.e., where a human being served as the ENGINE), used a linking mechanism (TRANSMISSION) much like a bicycle chain. Here was an obvious need for improvement. Every new system has parts and functions that don’t work well and that have to be improved. At the end of this second stage of evolution (making improvements in the engineering system), the system works quite well. But something is still missing. The system is not DYNAMIC enough. The next stage of evolution for a engineering system is the DYNAMIC stage.

When an engineering system enters the “DYNAMIC” stage of its evolution, its parts – especially its LIMBS — become more dynamic. One interpretation of this trend towards dynamic capability is that the LIMBS may have been transformed from a “macro” to a “micro” level. They may have been solid, but they are now free molecules, atoms, ions, or electrons. Or, their action may have been transformed from a mechanical to an electro-mechanical action. Or, they may have become more segmented or dispersed. Or, the responsiveness of their actions may have become far more rapid and reliable. In the DYNAMIC stage, the “parts” of a system appear to lose their individual image. They used to be more rigid and more permanently connected, but now they have flexible connections. Fixed landing gear on planes become adjustable and retractable. Wings can be adjusted to change their profiles. Fuselages can be adjusted up or down. Parts, in general, are more adjustable. The technical system has become more dynamic.

The last stage of evolution is SELF-DEVELOPMENT. In this stage, the technical system acquires the capability to reorganize itself, in order to accommodate changing needs and requirements. The system has a decision-making intelligence of its own. For most engineering systems, this fourth stage of evolution is still in the realm of imagination. But there are some systems that have already entered this stage. Systems that are “self-developed” make decisions as to when and how to perform certain required functions – just like human beings. Such systems have an intelligence of their own. Some systems with microprocessors, for example, have reached this stage.

Secret 17. Further acceleration of creative problem solving is possible with the use of creative, expert-system, invention-software. Rapid access to all aspects of the data bases of TRIZ enable the problem solvers to explore the problem from many directions: resolution of contradictions, evolution of technology, and the application of scientific effects.