10+ Innovations That Came From Unlikely Places

Workplaces should send their employees on field trips. Just putting that out there — the end of school shouldn't be the end of field trips because the end of school isn't the end of learning.

Here's why.

When stuck on a particularly vexing problem, you can pretty much count the seconds before someone will tell you that you need to "think outside the box." But what does that actually mean?

All too often, we get a bit stuck inside our own little silos. It's going to happen. When you go to the same job every day, it's all you're exposed to. The solution you need to your problem might well be outside that silo, but you'll never know it until you get out of it.

So, a good field trip could be just the thing everyone needs to get over a hump.

And if there's any doubt as to how effective thinking outside of your silo — or box, if you will — can be, just check out how some of these innovations came about.

1. The Assembly Line

Unsplash | Lenny Kuhne

Henry Ford's name is largely remembered because it's on all of the cars he made, but they were only possible because of the assembly line, a concept that transformed not just the auto industry, but the 20th century in general. And he didn't come up with the whole thing all by himself.

Ford was obsessed with productivity and efficiency, always seeking ways to get more cars out to the public as quickly as possible, and at as affordable a price as possible. For that, he and his right-hand man, Frederick Taylor — who turned workplace management into a science — looked beyond the confines of their production facility.

Out in the Midwest, other industries were already using conveyor belts to move work along.

Notably, in a much less pleasant way, the meatpacking industry's conveyor belts provided inspiration, but they were more of a disassembly line. Other food processors like flour mills, breweries, and canning plants all had continuous-flow production methods as well.

But assembling a car on a moving line was another matter entirely. It's not nearly the same thing as stuffing can after can with creamed corn. It required 140 workers, each with a single task, to stand by and perform that task as the car chassis moved slowly past.

Of course, we all know how it turned out for Ford.

The introduction of the moving assembly line revolutionized Ford's business and that sought-after productivity and efficiency boost was achieved, as the plant went from churning out a Model T every 12 hours to every one hour and 33 minutes.

But it was a rocky transition that didn't sit well with the workers — assembly line work was and is quite repetitive and boring, and the workers hated it. When they started to leave, Ford had to hike their wages to attract more labor, as well as reducing hours.

"We believe in making 25,000 men prosperous and contented rather than follow the plan of making a few slave drivers in our establishment multi-millionaires," Ford said.

So, from the assembly line's food processing origins, we got a revolution in manufacturing and as well as the eight-hour work day and competitive wages.

2. Dyson Vacuums

There's a distinct difference between Dyson vacuums and pretty much every other vacuum cleaner on the market and it shows in more places than just the price tag. But while you'll have to invest in countless bags for your less expensive vacuum over its lifetime, you'll never have to buy a bag for a Dyson. And for its inventor, James Dyson, that was the whole point.

Dyson says that he got frustrated with the Hoover he had, the "most powerful vacuum cleaner on the market," when it lost suction because the bag was all clogged up. He called it "a fundamental flaw, but valuable to the industry because it meant consumers had to buy new bags," he told The Guardian. "At the time, consumables were worth something like £500m a year."

So, Dyson set out to invent a better, bagless vacuum.

And to build a better vacuum, simply looking at the vacuums out there wasn't going to do. Inspiration struck for Dyson when he visited a sawmill and he "noticed how the sawdust was being removed from the air by large industrial cyclones."

Although Dyson doesn't have an engineering degree, he recognized that those cyclones were just what he needed. "So I created a cardboard prototype and strapped it on to my machine," he said. "It didn’t look great, but it picked up more dust. Fifteen years and 5,000 prototypes later, I had a bagless vacuum cleaner."

See? Field trips.

The bagless cyclone action of the Dyson vacuum isn't the only innovation on the machine, however.

Facebook | Dyson

Those who have used one know that it gets pushed around and maneuvered on one large, central plastic ball. That ball came from Dyson's first invention, the Ballbarrow. No, for real!

Dyson told The Guardian that, while restoring a dilapidated farm with his wife, he became frustrated with the wheelbarrow's wheel that kept getting stuck so he replaced the wheel with a ball, increasing the wheelbarrow's stability and maneuverability.

There you go, the Dyson vacuum is what it is because of sawmills and wheelbarrows.

3. Foldable Strollers

We take for granted now that baby strollers will fold up and stow away with ease but that wasn't always the case. There was a time when such things were basically like cribs on wheels: large, bulky prams that took up an entire corner of a room when they weren't in use.

One of the parents frustrated with pushing around and then trying to store their baby pram was Owen Maclaren's daughter. He decided to change things for every parent to ever come after him.

At the time, Maclaren's own life had just undergone a change.

Unsplash | Angel Luciano

It was 1965, and Maclaren had just become a grandfather. Meeting his kids and his first grandchild at the airport, Maclaren couldn't help noticing how they had to fight with their pram as they got off the plane. And, funny enough, planes would be the solution to that issue.

In his career, Maclaren had worked on the Spitfire, Britain's signature fighter plane that helped turn back the Germans during WWII. Maclaren had specifically worked on the Spitfire's landing gear, which folded neatly into the plane's body in flight.

You can see where this is going, right?

Maclaren's work on the Spitfire translated directly to his innovation with the baby stroller. He knew like few others how to make the most of space and how to design strong, lightweight mechanisms and before long he had a prototype built out of aluminum tubing and a deck chair.

Obviously, Maclaren's design was a hit not just with his family but with families around the globe. In the first 10 years after introducing the world's first folding baby stroller, Maclaren sold two million of them.

And now, well, can you even imagine having a stroller that can't fold up?

4. Surgical Infection Control

Unsplash | National Cancer Institute

The seemingly weird thing about this innovation is that the company involved, 3M, was already a market leader in surgical drapes, which are applied to the skin to protect patients undergoing surgical procedures from potential sources of infection.

But they were, to a degree, victims of their own success. They had produced high-end fabrics that could, for example, allow water vapor through a surgeon's gowns but not viruses, but that were too expensive for U.S. health insurance companies to pay for.

3M's team of innovators were simply tasked with developing new products that would address needs in a surgical setting, but that would sell, too.

A trip back to the drawing board led the team gradually further and further out of their silo.

Unsplash | Romina Farías

The search for low-cost infection control methods led them to hospitals in developing countries to find out how they did it for less. In the process, they determined that finding infection control measures that don't rely on antibiotics or costly surgical drapes.

The real breakthroughs came mostly outside of hospital settings, however — at least for humans. Consulting with veterinarians proved surprisingly beneficial. As one veterinarian put it, "Our patients are covered with hair, they don't bathe, and they don't have medical insurance, so the infection controls that we use can't cost much."

The other surprising source of inspiration came from Hollywood makeup artists, which makes sense when you think about it; they're always putting things on people's skin that can't irritate them for very long and that can be removed without too much trouble.

3M didn't get one new, helpful infection control product out of their innovation team. They got three.

Facebook | 3M

Yes, they came up with some some lower-cost surgical drapes — that presumably wouldn't irritate the skin — and they also developed a new line of tools out the project, devices that could both dispense and layer on antimicrobial substances during surgery, and suck up blood or other fluids as needed.

The 3M team also came up with a new way to prevent infections that would help with patients regardless of how much hair they had or whether they'd bathed recently: an "armor" line of products that coated things like catheter tubes with antimicrobial protection, thereby preventing infection at a site they hadn't even been considering originally.

5. Hospital Traffic Control

Unsplash | Mark Stenglein

Hospitals are busy, busy places. Even slow days can change in an instant. And in the hallways of a hospital, stakes are high. Some patient outcomes can hinge on how quickly they get care. Hospitals are also incredibly expensive to run and finding efficiencies is critical. The more they can keep their costs under control, the more people they can help for less.

To help wrangle their situation, one hospital in The Netherlands turned to another high-traffic, high-stakes place: the local airport.

For Amphia Hospital, the big factor was management of resources.

Amphia Hospital

The Netherlands faces a situation in which its population is ageing and its workforce is dwindling, so finding efficiencies will be critical to maintaining a good level of care for patients and making sure that hospitals don't become overwhelmed.

And so, looking to the model set by airports' traffic control towers — where lives are on the line from moment to moment — Amphia set up its own control center. From that centralized, connected hub, controllers can monitor conditions in the hospital in real time and make some decisions on how to best care for patients. They also maintain contact with other care institutions in the area such as nursing homes and specialist rehab centers and collaborate with them to manage capacity.

Amphia wasn't the only hospital inspired by the air traffic control model, either.

New York Presbyterian looked to air traffic control when setting up its Clinical Operations Center as well, and they say the results so far have been well worth it.

"We have successfully been able to lean on highly complex automated systems that greatly decreased redundancy in tasks performed by registered nurses, doctors and other staff, reduced the number of team members physically required to monitor patients, and sizably cut down the amount of time staff spend inputting patient data," New York Presbyterian's chief technology officer, Leo Bodden, told Healthcare IT News.

6. A Better Bullet Train

Unsplash | Chris Barbalis

If you absolutely, positively have to get somewhere in Japan from somewhere else in Japan as quickly as possible, chances are you'll be riding the Shinkansen, better known as the bullet train.

The Shinkansen is ideal for Japan's dense population and it's a model of efficiency, reaching speeds up to 320 km/h (about 200 mph) and timed down to the second. It's also comfortable, safe, and quiet. Well, at least for those inside the train. Outside the train, the high speeds of the Shinkansen created some serious issues.

If you've ever stood next to a freeway for any amount of time, you know that speed makes noise.

It's not just thundering engines like you hear at a NASCAR track either; it's the roar of air being displaced. For the Shinkansen, that noise was much worse than it is for road traffic, especially due to the overhead wires vibrating.

Even worse than that, when the train entered a tunnel, it created a small sonic boom — even though it traveled well below the speed of sound, the train created a boom by suddenly increasing the air pressure versus the fixed air volume inside the tunnel.

Dr. Eiji Nakatsu found his inspiration for a high-tech solution to the bullet train's noise problem in nature.

Unsplash | Fikri Rasyid

The overhead wires powering the Shinkansen connect to the train via a pantograph structure. To reduce noisy vibrations, Nakatsu redesigned the pantograph after an owl's wing, including small serrations like feathers, which greatly reduced the vibrations.

Nakatsu also redesigned the pantograph's supporting frame to mimic a penguin's body, which lowered its wind resistance.

And for the train itself, Nakatsu borrowed the kingfisher's beak, which is ideal for piercing water's surface. Because it's so good at going from a low pressure area into a high pressure area, the kingfisher's beak proved a perfect design for the train's nose. As a result, those bullet train booms when entering tunnels were eliminated.

7. Anti-Aging Cosmetics

Unsplash | Anastasiia Ostapovych

It's cliche to call necessity the mother of invention but it's also often true.

For Fujifilm, re-invention of its entire purpose as a company was an absolute necessity in the early 2000s. In a rather unfortunate turn of events, Fujifilm's innovators ended up nearly destroying the company with one of their creations: the world's first fully digital camera, released to consumers back in 1988.

But when digital photography started to explode, Fujifilm was poised to go the way of typewriters and steam engines as demand for their main product fell off a cliff.

Cost-cutting alone couldn't save Fujifilm from the digital revolution.

Although the company did try, closing manufacturing facilities and cutting 5,000 jobs. Switching to a focus on digital camera production wasn't going to help enough, either, as digital cameras have a much lower profit margin than film cameras.

So while plants shuttered, Fujifilm's research and development department doubled down, trying to figure out what the heck else the company could make money doing with what it already had on hand.

Amazingly enough, they came up with a viable solution: cosmetics.

It turns out that film and cosmetics share some remarkable chemistry.

Facebook | Astalift Singapore

Human skin and photo film share a common ingredient: collagen. Fujifilm had decades of experience working with collagen and understood how oxidation could cause photos to fade over time, and how to prevent it a process that could transfer quite lucratively to skincare.

And so in 2007, Fujifilm launched Astalift, a skincare line that incorporated the company's antioxidant formulations to prevent aging in skin rather than color-fading in film. That diversification into cosmetics saved the company.

8. Surgical Handoffs

Unsplash | National Cancer Institute

While surgeons get the majority of the spotlight, a successful surgical procedure requires a team effort. Everybody has to be communicating well and on the same page to give the patient the care they deserve and a good outcome.

Unfortunately, despite years of training and education, things don't always go as well as a surgical team hopes. And for one children's hospital in Britain, an untenably high mortality rate with heart surgery drove the need for change and it brought the hospital's experts to the race track.

The surgical team investigating the issue at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children understood that what they did was very much like what Formula 1 pit crews do.


They knew their problem occurred largely between the procedure itself and the handoff to the ICU team. So they went to observe a professional pit crew at work during a race in Italy.

They saw how each person on the crew had one specific task to do, knew when and how to do it, and stayed out of the way of their teammates as they performed their own tasks.

When the surgical team went back to Britain, they filmed their handoff process and actually sent it to the Formula 1 pit crew to get their feedback.

The pit crew looked it all over and came up with a new procedure for the surgical team to follow, including choreography.

The results spoke for themselves: a 66% reduction in errors. There's no doubt that the renewed patient safety protocols developed thanks to the Formula 1 pit crew's input saved a lot of lives.

9. Sanitary Napkins

It's hard to say how much good comes from wars, especially when you're talking about a conflict as widespread and destructive as World War I. Maps were redrawn and empires fell in the wake of that war's devastation, and new horrors rose out of its trenches with the development of things like chlorine and mustard gas, flamethrowers, and tanks.

In wartime production, shortages and rationing of materials isn't uncommon. The war effort always comes first and during World War I, cotton was among the materials in great need for surgical dressings.

In the face of those shortages, a new product came along.

Textile developer Kimberly-Clark had a new material that it thought would be of use in the war effort: Cellucotton, a creped cellulose wadding that substituted for cotton. Mass produced, Cellucotton cost half as much as cotton and it absorbed five times as much blood.

Naturally, Kimberly-Clark's production facilities went into high gear after the U.S. entered the war in 1917, putting out up to 500 feet of their surgical dressings every minute. The real breakthrough for the post-war market, however, occurred once the new material reached the hands of the Red Cross nurses.

Before WWI, menstruating women had few options.

Women wore bulky, diaper-like garments that they had to wash for re-use when they got their periods. But the Red Cross nurses recognized the promise in the new Cellucotton surgical dressings and used those instead.

Once the war was over, demand for Cellucotton dropped precipitously, and Kimberly-Clark had a huge surplus on its hands. When they learned how the nurses had used their material, however, the realized they had some serious potential and in 1920, they introduced the world's first disposable sanitary napkins: Kotex.

10. Real-Time Medical Monitoring

Unsplash | rafzin p

There's something about medical professionals and racing teams — maybe it's the commitment to precision, maybe it's the time-sensitive nature of their industries, maybe it's the teamwork involved in successful outcomes, but healthcare workers and racing teams seem to go hand-in-glove for some reason.

It's such a good fit that racing team McLaren has actually developed a partnership with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline to share expertise where they can and it has paid some surprising dividends for patients.

Speed and efficiency are the obvious things McLaren can help GSK with, but that's not all they've had to offer.

Facebook | McLaren

Yes, they did help with GSK's manufacturing processes, trimming the time lost to product line changeovers by 60%. But the McLaren team brought more than just their teamwork and ergonomic expertise to bear in its partnership — they also brought some serious tech, too.

During a race, a Formula 1 team like McLaren gathers mountains of data from hundreds of points, both from the car and from its driver. That's where GSK and McLaren thought they could really do something cool.

The McLaren and GSK teams worked together to adapt the telemetric sensors that gather data from the driver and apply it to patients.

In particular, they wanted to use the sensors to monitor stroke victims while they recover. The sensors could measure things like posture and gait and length of footsteps so that doctors can better assess how a patient is reacting to treatments.

Stephen Mayhew, GSK's director of R&D strategy, told the Financial Times that it's a huge advantage in clinical trials to get that kind of data stream rather than having to interview patients over long intervals.

"That is incredibly subjective," he said. "If you are only seeing a patient every three months you are not getting a very accurate picture."

11. Rover Wheels

Off-roading is hard enough on Earth. Off-roading when you're off-world is another matter entirely. It's not like you can just pop into a service station for a rotation and a top-up of air when you're on a different planet, right?

But for NASA, it's all part of the mission, which is why the wheel design on the Mars rovers was so critical. It's awfully difficult for rovers to, well, rove if their wheels won't let them go places.

The designers of the Mars rovers knew their creation was in for a tough time on Mars's rugged terrain but after seeing just how harsh the conditions were and how much damage the wheels could sustain, they knew it was time to give their design another look.

To be fair, the rovers accomplished a lot on those wheels.

But Curiosity in particular suffered for its mission, with rutted, dented, fractured wheels, holes poked right through the solid aluminum structure by Martian rocks. And while Curiosity's controllers certainly expected some wear and tear from the terrain, the amount of damage the wheels accrued necessitated some changes to its route across the planet's surface to avoid areas rich in sharp rocks.

It's something they'd like to prevent on future missions, however, and for a solution, NASA's engineers, always on the cutting edge, decided to get Medieval.

The next generation of rover wheels will look different, but there will definitely be something familiar about them.

Curiosity's wheels took the punishment they did because the solid aluminum had little give. The wheels of the future look to the past, using chainmail as its inspiration. The woven links of chainmail have both rigidity and give to provide stability and traction while also absorbing impacts. Just as the swords of old would have trouble slicing through a knight's chainmail, Martian or lunar rocks should have a tougher time puncturing chainmail wheels.

What's more, the chainmail will be made of a nickel-titanium alloy rather than aluminum. "The use of a NiTi shape memory alloy yield a superelastic tire that is virtually impervious to plastic deformation," said the team at NASA's Glenn Research Center.

12. Pediatric MRIs

Now there's a term that shouldn't have to exist, but at the same time, MRI technology has transformed medicine and helped a lot of sick kids. They're really almost magical machines, allowing doctors to see all the muscles and tendons and blood vessels and organs inside a person without causing any pain, without requiring any incisions, and without blasting them with radiation.

The thing about MRI machines is that, despite their painlessness, they're pretty scary, too and that's a big problem.

About 90% of MRIs are performed on adults.

The big reason for that? When undergoing an MRI, you have to remain still for a long period of time. Kids are already not great at doing that. They breathe faster, have faster heart beats, and generally tend to fidget, which complicates things when technicians try to get a clear image. The scariness of the machine itself doesn't help at all - about 80% of pediatric MRI patients have to be sedated, which is far from ideal.

What's more, seeing kids scared to use the machine shook GE designer Doug Dietz to his core. Dietz already had 20+ years of experience designing for GE but he had to relearn his trade to make the changes he knew his machine needed.

The key, of course, was to get out of the hospital.

After consulting dozens of design experts to get his creative juices flowing, Dietz went to places that knew kids best like daycare centers and children's museums. Field trip!

Soon, he had his idea: a whole makeover to make the MRI room just for kids, with a central theme. He outfitted it like a pirate ship with colorful decals on every surface. But it wasn't just a cosmetic makeover; he also wrote up a script for the operators, who would then guide the kids undergoing the MRI through an "adventure."

It was a hit. In fact, it was such a hit that GE has developed a whole line of adventures, including a safari theme, space exploration theme, and a campground theme, and they've adapted them for other medical imaging suites such as those for CT scans and X-rays.

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