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Massey's first innovator-in-residence spreads Toyota's 'learning-first' gospel

Massey University has appointed its first ever Innovator-in-Residence, who will work with a range of local companies to amp up their innovation processes and boost quality and productivity.

Colin Gilchrist, managing director at Set Based Solutions, is a champion of the Learning First product development model based on the Toyota manufacturing approach, which centres around thorough research and “knowledge capture” at the development stage in product design.

He will be based part-time at the Albany campus running workshops to help students and companies adapt the method, which he says will significantly enhance Kiwi business outcomes.

He says most companies in the early stages fail to invest sufficient time and money in careful planning and research of their product.

Gilchrist, who was general manager quality for Fisher & Paykel Appliances from 1972 until 2010, says adopting the model makes product design less costly and results in better quality products.

“Most manufacturing companies have two issues in common that plague their innovation processes: the loss of knowledge across projects and the continual loopbacks to fix problems caused by design decisions made with incorrect knowledge,” he says.

Instead, engineers spend much of their time “fire-fighting” problems that could have been solved earlier in the development process.

The consequences for business are delayed schedules, cost overruns, lost engineering productivity, poor quality products and subsequent lost profits.

Kent Harmon, Dr Aruna Shekar and Colin Gilchrist

Kent Harmon, Dr Aruna Shekar and Colin Gilchrist

Gilchrist will work with Dr Aruna Shekar, a senior lecturer at the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, some of her students, and several companies.

In his resident role, he and Shekar are working to monitor and enhance industrial innovation practices to world-class standards in partnership with engineering firms Gallagher and Tait, electronics company Aucom and food manufacturere Hansells. Other companies will be coming on board later in the year.

The research programme underway includes an assessment tool to gauge current performance of product innovation, a new product development model with a focus on the front-end (the foundation and critical stage) of development, and set-based (creating multiple design variations simultaneously) thinking and methods.

Shekar says Learning First methods are being integrated into product design teaching and research at Massey to equip a new generation of engineers for future challenges.

“Our aim is to adapt the successful new product development model in New Zealand to suit the company context and culture, and validate it through industrial case studies,” she says. “Essentially what we want to do is to propose a map for the sustainability of learning within companies.”

Gilchrist’s role as Innovator-in-Residence is part of the university’s newly-launched innovation strategy, which aims to encourage staff and students across all disciplines to consider how their knowledge and ideas can be transformed into tools or products for the benefit of the wider society.