BYU Forum: Larry Howell on Anatomy of Invention

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Larry L. Howell spoke about the "Anatomy of Intervention" at a BYU Forum on May 17, 2016. (Maddi Driggs)
Larry L. Howell spoke about the “Anatomy of Intervention” at a BYU Forum on May 17, 2016. (Maddi Driggs)

Mechanical engineering professor Larry Howell encourages students to always be looking for how they can make contributions that will make a difference in the world. Howell was awarded the BYU Distinguished Faculty Award.

The forum topic was “Anatomy of Invention,” since the speaker’s research focuses on compliant mechanisms.

“By anatomy, I mean the structure of the internal workings of something,” Howell said.

Howell talked about three principles in his forum speech: inspiration, collaboration and exploitation.

“I have come to believe that these principals are important to the anatomy, or internal workings, of innovation and invention,” Howell said.

Inspiration

Howell suggested to find inspiration by observing the world around you, seeking to understand what you observe and then applying that knowledge to do new things.

Origami has become an inspiration in Howell’s lab. He and his lab team first studied “action origami” which is a style of origami that moves.

“This is an important fundamental idea that helps us create mathematical equations that describe action origami motion, which then help us extent those concepts to devices that in the end won’t even necessary look like origami,” Howell said.

Howell and his team worked on a project where origami helped with their understanding of minimally invasive surgery.

Howell also recommended likening the scriptures to your life, which helps people become better.

“Of all the things we’ll talk about, none of them are as important or as impactful as receiving divine guidance in your work,” Howell said.

Collaboration

“Collaboration enables us to accomplish goals much greater than what we could do on our own,” said Howell.

Howell emphasized that in order to have successful collaboration, you have to respect people who are different than you.

“When people with different life experiences, educational backgrounds and abilities work together, it is important for everyone to appreciate what others bring to the table,” Howell said.

Though collaboration and respecting people are not new concepts, Howell believes it is often overlooked in its role in innovation.

The speaker mentioned that collaborating with students and colleagues is one of the most rewarding parts of his career.

Exploitation

Howell defines exploitation as making the most of opportunities that present themselves.

“Make sure that you are constantly moving towards a goal because it’s while you are moving that things happen,” Howell said.

Howell’s caution for exploitation is to not always jump onto every new idea. He encourages you to keep a record of your thoughts to decide if you want to pursue them now or at another time.

When engineers try to fulfill a customer’s need, it is called engineering design process. “Understanding the need and measuring how well you fulfilled that need is just good engineering, it’s what engineers do,” Howell said.

A more controversial approach is called “technology push.” Engineers in this approach start with a new technology and search to identify a need to fulfill it. Howell used an example of hammers and nails, noting that good technology push design is matching the right hammer to the right job.

“You can liken the technology push process to your life,” Howell said. “You are the hammer. Always be looking for the right nails.”

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