Some cogs in the sky

Horizontal innovation: Solving our greatest challenges with existing technologies

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Knowledge and innovation are not sector-specific, but all too often ground-breaking technologies become bound into the sectors in which they were first conceived. This poses the question: if the technology is there why not use it to solve problems in other areas?

Last year, the IET and the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA) joined forces to promote the opportunities of ‘horizontal innovation’– the transfer of knowledge and technology from one sector to another.

One successful example has seen Formula 1 technology applied in neonatal care. In 2016, the Greater Manchester Neonatal Transport Team at St Mary’s Hospital Manchester initiated a project to investigate the effects of transporting critically ill newborn babies between hospitals, using an innovative ‘race-bred’ data logger secured to a transport incubator. The instrument uses an accelerometer combined with GPS technology to provide an electronic movement profile of the whole transfer. The study compared how the speed of the ambulance, G forces and vibration experienced by the baby related to the stability of the vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure. A better understanding of the physiological effects of movement and vibration at a critical stage in a baby’s life will be used to inform technological improvements in the design of ambulances and incubators.

The Manchester project is just one demonstration of how cross-sector knowledge transfer is helping to solve serious problems. The UK is internationally renowned for its creativity, research and innovation, but often it seems that new technologies or processes can get locked into one sector, one industry, or even one specific company. As an industry and as a society, we don’t tend to work together to fully exploit the potential of new technologies – which means that we are genuinely missing out on the rewards that they could bring.

The IET’s Horizontal Innovation Initiative is about addressing the barriers to sharing ideas and ensuring that more of our innovations are used where they are needed, and not just in the sector in which they are created. We are looking to recognise, encourage and reward horizontal innovation, which we believe could deliver huge economic and societal benefits.

There are already some outstanding best-practice exemplars of horizontal innovation – but there is a great opportunity to find and encourage more.

As an interdisciplinary organisation, the IET is ideally placed to promote horizontal innovation between industries and is encouraging more sectors to get involved and consider how the technology used in other areas could benefit their industry. There is a genuine opportunity through the initiative to drive growth, create jobs and opportunities for future engineers – and most importantly make sure that solutions that already exist are used to address some of our greatest challenges.

Commercial and business innovations have begun to merge with consumer electronics knowhow and trends to push technology in new directions. Business and consumer innovations are coming together and developing something incredibly powerful and new, but we need to create even more opportunities to share ideas. To do this we need to reach out beyond the engineering world to the people who are experiencing the problems and challenges that we, as engineers, are trying to solve, and include them as an integral part of the Horizontal Innovation Initiative.

Through this initiative we want to raise awareness and drive wider take-up of the successful transfer of technology from one sector to another across the UK innovation landscape. The IET believes that horizontal innovation can be a key differentiator for the success of the UK in tackling the complex challenges of the 21st century.

The problem we are facing at the moment is that of a lack of understanding and awareness of the opportunities created by working together across industries. Research conducted by the IET and Cranfield University uncovered lack of awareness of funding, concerns around security, and limited cross-sector collaboration as three of the main barriers to harnessing the potential of horizontal innovation. In response, the IET has put in place a number of projects and opportunities to help companies get involved with other sectors and so benefit from the knowledge and technology on offer.

In order to encourage cross-sector collaboration, the IET is setting up a number of collaborative brokerage events. The aim is to use the breadth and scale of the IET to reach into the technology community and create collaborations between unrelated industries; possible target sectors include food, fast-moving consumer goods, energy and healthcare. It is intended that these networking opportunities will bring together sectors that do not usually interact much, allowing industry professionals to encourage knowledge sharing and technology transfer.

The IET has also created a virtual community, connecting people and providing an opportunity to network, share ideas and expertise, collaborate, learn and keep abreast of news and views. The online community is a forum to facilitate the discovery of challenges, technologies and potential collaborations.

The IET is also working hard on bringing together a Horizontal Innovation conference, taking place in January. The conference will host key industry leaders sharing their knowledge and experience, complemented by case study examples, speed networking, a technology showcase and a call for solutions – an opportunity to present your own knowledge transfer solution to an industry problem.

3P Innovation

Case study

Last year the IET and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) teamed up in a £35,000 scheme to help a small- or medium-sized enterprise (SME) develop its existing technology to solve a healthcare challenge, particularly within NHS emergency care or intensive care units. The winner was 3P Innovation.

Founded 10 years ago, 3P mainly focuses on producing custom automation for the medical device and pharmaceuticals industries. Recently the company became aware of substantial deficiencies with indwelling urinary catheters, as a result of a client-funded project.

These devices, known as ‘Foley’ catheters, are commonly used in emergency care, intensive care and post-operative settings. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are the second most common type of hospital-acquired infection after respiratory tract infections, and 95 per cent of these UTIs occur in intensive care settings. They lead to deaths, serious infections and increased healthcare costs.

In response to this, 3P came up with a novel device that would help to limit infections in patients requiring catheters. The solution re-purposes technology from the food and fast-moving consumer goods sectors. The technology has been proven, in-vitro, to significantly reduce catheter associated urinary tract infections.

Typically, Foley catheters are completely blocked by infective material within seven days, whereas 3P’s technology demonstrated no sign of infective material at greater than 14 days. Having carried out the testing, Bristol Urology Institute (BUI), a world leader in the field, has suggested that inclusion of the technology could reduce infection of the bladder by up to 50 per cent.

The device has attracted the attention of the NHS’s i4i funding arm, which confirmed, in late August 2016, that it would fund Southampton University to conduct the first in-human clinical trials during 2017–18. These trials are planned with prototype medical devices produced using rapid prototyping techniques.

Ideas and concepts for automation and machinery from one industry have been naturally reapplied to different sectors by 3P’s engineers – the catheter technology being one example. 3P has been using the ideas that underpin horizontal innovation for many years. Ideas and concepts for automation and machinery from one industry have been naturally reapplied to different sectors.

Thanks to funding from MTC, 3P now has access to the MTC’s flexible factory capabilities, as well as receiving support in business planning, product design and engineering expertise. 3P plans to use the funding through the SME programme to develop a production-ready design and manufacturing process for the medical device.

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