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TRIZ and the Last Bit of Toothpaste

| On 03, Sep 2007

By Prashant Y. Joglekar

Let’s talk about that early morning activity we all do, brushing our teeth. First, we wet the toothbrush, then we put our preferred toothpaste on it, then we look into the mirror and brush our teeth for at least three minutes (sometimes less, if we’re distracted or in a hurry). For most of us, this is no great challenge, particularly if the toothpaste is new from the tube. Just apply a bit of pressure to the tube and paste is on its way to the brush. No problem.

But what happens when the tube is almost – but not quite – empty? Do you feel like getting out a new tube and leaving the remainder for somebody else in your family to squeeze out? After all, you think, they’re less busy or they’re stronger or more determined. So maybe you grab that new package out of the cupboard, just as your spouse appears – and suddenly you’re receiving a morning discourse on Lean principles (no waste, do more with less, etc.). You only escape after promising you’ll make sure to get every last drop of toothpaste out of the tube the next time.

Now, you may be thinking, “Hey, what’s the big deal?” Let’s examine the impact of small things. Let’s assume that between the United States and India there are 500 million people using toothpaste. (Perhaps this number is a bit conservative, but work with me here.) On average a person in the United States might go through half a tube each month; in India that person might use a tube and a half each month. (The product packaging varies from one country to the other.) If you tally up the waste that takes place with every single one of those tubes, on an overall basis, we’re talking about a huge loss of rich minerals (which are used in the creation of that toothpaste, at least according to Discovery Channel’s “How do they do it? Top to Toe”).

Toothpaste and TRIZ

You may wonder what this has to do with TRIZ. Yes, there is a connection. In the grand scheme of things, you don’t want to waste toothpaste; you want to consume it to its last drop. But you want to do that effortlessly, effectively and efficiently.

Table 1: Contradiction Matrix for Getting the Last Gram of Toothpaste Out of a Tube
Parameter to ImproveParameter that WorsensInventive Principles
Waste of substanceForceCurvature (14)
Dynamization (15)
Preliminary anti-action (9)
Mechanical vibration (18)
Composite material (40)
Parameter changes (35)
Another dimension (17)
Asymmetry (4)

At this point we’re sure we want a device – a method – that can solve this problem. Let’s go through some of the suggested principles and see what solutions we can generate.

  • Curvature: The principle says to use rollers instead a flat object. In India, a chapati roller comes to mind. In the United States, perhaps a rolling pin would work. (Using existing household resources to solve the problem is classic TRIZ innovation.)
  • Dynamization: The principle suggests making fixed parts movable and movable parts fixed. The parts should move relative to each other. It also suggests using flexible or elastic links between objects.
  • Preliminary anti-actions: This suggests introducing stresses to oppose known harmful working stresses later on (elastic band stretching).

The toothpaste squeezer shown in Figure 1 seems to incorporate all these ideas.

Figure 1: Squeezer Seen
at Tradeshow

(Cost Rs 5, USD 0.12 cents)

  • Mechanical vibration: This principle suggests vibrating an object. This may not be relevant in our toothpaste case, but if you look at parameter change principle (35), then toothpaste that comes as a gel may also be available as a tooth powder in a tin. You could vibrate the tin to get out the leftover powder.
  • Composite materials: The material used needs to be rigid and elastic, which can serve the purposes of stretching and gripping toothpaste. Composite material generally takes care of physical contradictions such as something that needs to be both elastic and rigid (two properties at different times), as shown inFigure 2.

Figure 2: Squeezer Available with Composite Material

(Cost Rs 50, USD $1.22)

  • Parameter changes: As leading TRIZ researcher Darrell Mann writes, this is one of the widely used inventive principles, which suggests that we look for an option to change the state of the matter (from solid to semi-liquid, liquid, spray, gas, field-based solutions, etc.) This may then totally eliminate the current contradiction. (Aerosol spray takes care of that last bit of remaining product by curving the base of the can.) From what we can tell, others are already making businesses out of all of these solutions while eliminating contradictions. We have a liquid mouthwash, solid chewing gums (which take care of oral hygiene for the whole day) and mist mouth fresheners.

More Ideas

There’s even a field-based solution in which a weak electric field is generated to put the same charge on the plaque and the teeth, thereby forcing the teeth to repel the plaque. Ideas from other fields led to the development of the ion toothbrush. The stick of the toothbrush is made of titanium dioxide (use of material resource). When exposed to light (again, use of material resource) this stick releases electrons, which, due to conducting saliva (use of a material resource) while contacting acid contained in the dental plaque, generate positive ions of hydrogen, destroying dental plaque and bacteria. Teeth get cleaned due to photo catalytic features of the titanium stick. The need for both toothpaste and water disappears.3

Figure 3: Ion Toothbrush

Many contradictions are still to be resolved, including the issue of storage. Why couldn’t the toothpaste cap act as a base on which to stand the tube? Now we have two parameters to ponder: squeezing and storage. It clearly points us to principles 5 and 6, merging and universality, which are used in combination with principle 15, dynamism. Figure 4 shows a device in which this is applied. If you are ready to spend Rs 500 (USD$12.23), then this device can be yours.

Figure 4: Holder and Squeezer

The Path to Business Opportunity

The objective of this discussion was to demonstrate how part of the systematic innovation method works. It can surely be applied to your problems as well. Another objective is to show that if you define the problem correctly, getting a solution – or a direction to a solution – becomes easier. Systematically working through the process sets you on the right track while mining a rich knowledge repository (the patent database). Innovation is all about getting from an idea to implementation. If you work on the right ideas, implementation is also easier. The application of TRIZ is an excellent way to get to the right ideas. Along the way, you may have noticed, solving present problems opens up lot of new business opportunities for an innovative company.

References

  1. Hands On Systematic Innovation, Darrell L. Mann,2002.
  2. Updating the TRIZ Contradiction Matrix,” Darrell L. Mann et al, 2004.
  3. Laws of Development of Needs,” Vladimir Petrov, TRIZ Association of Israel, ETRIA TRIZ Futures 2005 Conference and The TRIZ Journal, March 2006.