By Mark Jones
Detroit, or at least the Detroit Airport, has one clear advantage over other airports. This is thanks, I believe, to Ferruccio Ratti. Research was required to identify Ratti. All I had to go on was my observations of an innovation in action.
Let me begin by saying I don’t like most of the definitions out there for innovation. Most equate innovation and invention. I reserve innovation for an invention put to practice. I reserve innovation for inventions making an impact. A great innovation is inventive, but it must also be useful. It must be in use, making a difference.
Some innovations are overly complicated. They can require years of work and refinement. Others are startlingly simple. I love the simple ones, those that take your breath away with the purity of the idea. I love the ones where upon seeing it, you almost can’t imagine how no one else thought of it — the ones that appear obvious.
Robert Kearns and his invention of the intermittent windshield wiper is an example. His story is one of the best-known patent infringement cases and the subject of a New Yorker article subsequently made into a movie. Kearns won cases against Ford and Chrysler. Both claimed his idea for an intermittent wiper was obvious, that it failed to meet the standards of originality and novelty required for a patent. They claimed an invention had to be “non-obvious.” They were wrong.
Intermittent wipers are certainly obvious once you see them. Yet, there were no intermittent wipers prior to Kearns. Everyone missed the obvious except him. His capture of the obvious made for a very useful innovation. Intermittent wipers are incredibly handy.
Recently, I travelled from Michigan to Colorado. I was able to experience two large airports in Detroit and Denver and visited the bathroom at both. Walk into a Denver airport men’s room and you’ll find a group waiting while one waves his hands in front of a touchless dispenser hoping to make a towel appear. Sensors in Denver require triggering hand movements before releasing a towel. After each towel, there is a programmed delay, likely to keep multiple towels from being dispensed. The exact movements required to conjure a towel are elusive, leading users to make a string of ever more frantic hand motions hoping to produce a towel. Everyone is delayed.
It was very different in Detroit, thanks to a simple innovation. Walk into a Detroit airport men’s room and you are confronted with a paper towel ready to grab. Removal of a towel instantly triggers dispensing another. No handwaving. No lines. Detroit got it right.
Once I realized what was going on, I went searching for the inventor, the person responsible for this beautifully simple innovation. I learned about Ferruccio Ratti, the first to patent a towel dispenser that produces a new towel when a towel is removed. Far from new, Ratti patented his invention in 1973. Ratti’s invention is there for all to use, beautiful in its simplicity. Thankfully, Detroit airport is availing itself of his innovation. As for Denver … it has some catching up to do.
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Filed Under: Technical Thinking