| 10:22 AM EST

Reinventing the Wheel— Literally and Figuratively

There’s the ordinary. Then there’s the extraordinary. Even for wheels.


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One of the chestnuts that’s often pulled out of the fire and set down as a blistering hot criticism-cum-piece-of-advice is “Don’t reinvent the wheel.”

This, of course, is meant to say that when developing something, it is better to take advantage of what has been done before rather than to try to do a long reach that is, in effect, to use another hackneyed phrase, streching “out of the box.”

It’s probably not that the person proffering the advice doesn’t want something out of the box. Or at least different. Because let’s face it: nowadays to simply do what has been done before with slight enhancements and modifications—a change here and there and possibly a new paint job—is not going to make it in the market, unless, of course, the objective is to create something that has a low, low price point.

In other words: Unless the goal is to create a commodity.

But there is a problem with this approach. While the U.S. has become, over the last few years, more competitive vis-à-vis manufacturing costs, with everything from wages to energy becoming comparatively less expensive, and while there is certainly a non-trivial amount of reshoring occurring (and in this regard, I would like to call your attention to the efforts of The Reshoring Initiative [reshorenow.org], which is doing tremendous work in this area), simple, cheap and easy things are not the items that can best be produced in the U.S. There are low labor costs and then there are low labor costs. And the abundance of natural gas that has been discovered in the U.S. notwithstanding, in some countries where air quality isn’t quite as much a consideration, the price of energy there is not particularly high. (It costs money to protect the air we breathe.)

All of which is to say that for some products, commodity products, chances are the place to produce them is not likely the U.S. Ideally, products with higher added value, products with more complexity, products with more design, products with more engineering content—these would be the ones more likely made in the U.S.

So this whole idea of not “reinventing the wheel,” not going beyond the status quo but simply burnishing it in some way, shape or form, isn’t sufficient or beneficial.

All this talk of the U.S. notwithstanding, let’s go over to the other side of the Atlantic.

Every year the Design Museum in London (designmuseum.org) presents Designs of the Year awards to, as Pete Collard, curator of the program, put it, “the most innovative, forward-thinking and culturally relevant projects from the last twelve months. The work selected demonstrates the many ways in which design can transform our physical and cultural landscape.”

And one of the awards for 2013, in the Transport category, was for quite literally a reinvented wheel.

Vitamins, Design and Invention Studio (vitaminsdesign.com) 
created, for Maddak Inc. (maddak.com), a New Jersey-based manufacturer of home healthcare products, the Morph Folding Wheel (morphwheels.com) for wheelchairs.

Yes, they reinvented the wheel. It is a folding wheel, which make storage and transport of wheelchairs simpler and easier.

OK, the brief was to come up with something different. Which Vitamins did. And the brief was related to wheels such that it was understandable that reinvention would be part of it.

But in some regards it points to a bigger aspect of product development. Even something that would seem so straightforward as a wheel, something that was invented centuries ago in Mesopotamia, could be reimagined, not in some sort of fanciful way, but in a way that has fundamental benefit to its users.

This isn’t about wheels per se. It is about taking on the task of creating something that is sufficiently differentiated in a useful way (goodness knows that there are all manner of developments that are different but fundamentally useless), something that 
people recognize as being beneficial, even though the category of that product has long been the norm.

To be sure, there is always the issue of a dominant design, of something that is accepted and so difficult to displace. Difficult. Not impossible.

Vitamins describes what it does as: “We work in the spaces between science, technology, business and wonder.” Wonder. That’s a wonderful concept. Adrian Westaway, one of the three founders of the firm, “is in charge of technology and magic.”

Yes, he is a bona-fide magician. But I can only imagine that the Vitamins team has something of the metaphysical about them. A little something special.

Yes, there is something very pragmatic about things like wheels. But if you add a touch of magic, then you can come up with something completely unexpected.

There’s the ordinary. Then there’s the extraordinary. Even for wheels. 

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