How to teach and manage innovation? The best tips from a Polytechnique professor | Sculpteo Blog

How to teach and manage innovation? The best tips from a Polytechnique professor

Posted By Amandine Richardot on Aug 14, 2018 | 0 comments

What are the keys to success when it comes to innovation? That’s the question experts on the topic try to answer. Innovation teachers, trying to share the best practices with their students, naturally are at the forefront. How can you teach such a complex topic? Which lessons can you learn from it? What’s the link between 3D printing and innovation? We had a chat with Thierry Rayna, professor of innovation management at Polytechnique, a prestigious French engineering school.


Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m a Professor of innovation management at the Ecole Polytechnique and researcher at the CNRS i3-CRG laboratory. Previously, I spent the major part of my career in the UK, in universities such as Cambridge University, the LSE, UCL, and Imperial College London.


My Ph.D. thesis was about the impact of digitization on the strategies of companies. I especially tried to understand how the fact that objects (music, films, books, etc.) were becoming digital was changing the nature of these goods, and how we had to rethink existing business models. What can we do when the business models of companies that have worked almost automatically for 70 years stop working all of a sudden?


In 2010, a colleague researcher in architecture talked to me about 3D printing, a technology I didn’t know. I was immediately very interested in the topic because this technology represented a huge potential. It meant that we were heading towards an extensive digitization of our economy since content and services were not the only ones to be impacted anymore: physical objects were also part of this transformation. I immediately thought of problematics of copy, co-creation, intellectual property, competition, etc.


I decided to join Polytechnique in order to create an interface between the technological and management aspects.


Why is it necessary to teach innovation to Polytechnique students?

In the end, that’s quite a French question. Abroad, in hard sciences and engineering schools and universities, you teach innovation management very frequently. In the UK, for instance, at UCL or Imperial College, the latest business schools were launched inside engineering schools. It’s the same in Germany (RWTH Aachen, Technical University of Munich…), and, of course, in the US (Sloan Business School of M.I.T., the Stanford School of Business…).


Usually, you observe an alternation of business and technological cycles. We experienced a cycle more orientated towards business from the 1980’s to the financial crisis of 2008, and, since then, we switched paradigm. We’re currently going back to a more technological cycle. Indeed, technology is evolving very fast, with numerous potentially disruptive innovations (autonomous vehicles, IoT, 3D printing, the blockchain, etc.).


These are not “usual” technologies that we already know and understand well in order to foresee their future, but emerging technologies with markets and uses that still need to be invented. Thus, we need skills that are at the interface between technology and management. That’s why we need more and more people with transversal skills.


In France, this multidisciplinary tradition may be less present. However, at Polytechnique, teaching innovation management (and management in general) is nothing new: the Research Center in Management was created in 1972, with the aim to create management classes for Polytechnique students, and the PIC (Project Innovation Conception) Master was created 15 years ago. However, innovation management classes have been optional for years. The Innovation management and entrepreneurship department was launched 4 years ago in order to make education to management more systematic at Polytechnique. We didn’t want our students to need to study in an engineering school, and then in a business school, but to help all of our students get these transversal skills (even if they can develop them even more by joining a business school afterward). Abroad, these transversal formations are more common, since they work in major/ minor topics.


This becomes necessary especially because of the strong acceleration of innovation and (global) competition. Previously, you could learn innovation management on the field. Nowadays, we don’t have time anymore for this, people need to be operational right away. Not having these transversal skills slows down the ability to innovate and the deployment of these new technologies. The opposite issue actually occurs in business schools where technical classes and thus, the understanding of these emerging technologies, are rarer. 


How can we teach innovation?

There are several techniques. The biggest challenge according to me is that we tend to focus on short to middle term innovations, without taking into account underlying trends, while they’re actually central in the field of digital technologies.


During my e-commerce classes at the beginning of the 2000’s, I have been strongly inspired by the fact that the reference book, even though it had been written in the 1990’s, with examples that were not up to date, was still relevant regarding the principles explained.


Thus, it’s essential to be able to understand the underlying technological trends. That way, we’re not surprised by uberisation or 3D printing. We also understand that blockchain is a specific usage and might not replace the standard activities of banks, for instance.


Teaching innovation management is giving the right toolbox to understand these trends. Most of all, you need to understand the key factors of success. For instance, Spotify didn’t invent anything fundamental in terms of business models (companies were already offering music streaming at the beginning of the 2000’s), but they entered the market at the right moment, with a slight change (the use of smartphones instead of mp3 players) that made the whole difference.


As a result, teaching innovation management is based a lot on projects, which have a strong link with entrepreneurship. This helps to understand the functionality of technologies and to think in terms of usages, instead of focussing on technologies themselves. Indeed, we talk a lot of disruptive technologies, while we should rather talk of disruptive usages. We could 3D print everything (in the future), but what would be the point?


According to you, what’s the link between 3D printing and innovation?

The link between 3D printing and innovation has always been quite natural. Historically, rapid prototyping is the first use of 3D printing. In that case, we’re at the very beginning of the innovation process. That’s a truly essential role. This traditional use of 3D printing is still one of the most common ones.


The impact of this use of 3D printing is not very visible in our daily lives, but it’s still very important. Accelerating the prototyping process helps to truly improve innovation. It allows testing products quite early, to check that everything is working well.


The second key usage of 3D printing is rapid tooling. For instance, creating more efficient tools helps to increase the pace of the whole production process and to make short-run manufacturing more cost-efficient (which also makes the creation of customized products easier).


But using 3D printing for tooling also creates some progress in terms of innovation itself. That’s, for instance, the case with Michelin which uses 3D printed molds to manufacture its tires. Thanks to these 3D printed molds that have a way more complex shape, their product becomes much more performant.


The third key usage is the use of 3D printing to manufacture objects (fully or partially). Direct manufacturing has three main benefits: it’s faster (since you don’t need tooling, you can manufacture a part in just a few hours, which would be impossible with other techniques, hence the strong use of 3D printing in automotive sports), the cost per unit remains the same, which means that it’s not more expensive to manufacture 10000 different objects than printing 10000 times the same object (that’s why 3D printing is so successful when it comes to prosthetics), and, finally, 3D printing allows to manufacture objects of incredibly complex shapes and which couldn’t be manufactured with another technique (which for instance helps strongly improving the strength/ weight ratio, explaining the success of 3D printing in aeronautics).

Finally, 3D printing can be used for distributed manufacturing. Instead of offshoring the manufacturing of goods in Asia (for instance), as it’s often the case nowadays, products can be manufactured locally (and potentially at home, in the future) thanks to 3D printers. 
That’s already a common use of 3D printing for several startups.


Thanks to 3D printing, since the cost per unit is stable, there’s no reason to manufacture a big volume of parts anymore and to concentrate production in terms of place and time. Instead, we can manufacture goods on demand, which has important consequences for innovation.


Indeed, usually, you develop products in a short amount of time, you don’t test them extensively, and then you manufacture them right away, producing ten thousand to a hundred thousands units. And it’s often when you commercialize your product that you discover the existence of defects or potential improvements. Thanks to 3D printing, you can manufacture on demand, continuously. You can implement customer feedback in real time, without having to wait to have sold your whole stock of products. Thus, you can innovate continuously. Moreover, you can also build products that will match your customer’s needs better thanks to customization.


The innovation dynamic thanks to 3D printing is also more interesting because it is more open and thus, it can more easily come from the customer: there’s no need to be an R&D department to innovate. For instance, that’s what happened with the RepRap community which strongly helped to democratize 3D printing, developing 3D printers which cost 10 times less than the other printers. The project would never have been possible without this large-size collaboration between users-innovators.


As a result, we can see that a whole bunch of individuals can enter the market and innovate, which is a very important aspect. This phenomenon creates a competition with companies, and that’s what can scare existing market leaders.


Thus, there’s an extraordinary innovation potential thanks to 3D printing, but you need to know how to guide it. That’s a true upcoming competitive advantage for countries who will know how to help this development.


How do students see 3D printing?

I think that the main difficulty is that there are some trends. 3D printing used to be trendy 2 or 3 years ago for engineering students, but today, it’s more blockchain and machine learning that gain attention. That’s a bit similar to the decrease in interest for PC at the end of 1980’s.


On the other hand, for business school students or management students, there’s often a magical and mythical vision of 3D printing due to a lack of understanding of the way this technology works and of the technical constraints of its use. This results in a vision of business models and of markets linked to this technology that is not very realistic.


You can also observe this lack of transversal skills in startups. Entrepreneurs regularly contact me when they’re launching projects that have very little chances of success, generally because of a lack of understanding of the usages and business models of the technology itself. I can’t count the number of times when someone told me “I have a great idea: I’m going to 3D print this product!”, but in the end, the customer doesn’t care that the product is 3D printed (except technophiles like me). What’s the point? How does it justify the (often) higher production cost compared to a similar product produced with traditional manufacturing methods? Once again, the main difficulty is to have transversal skills in order to avoid these issues. 3D printing is part of a set of tools you can combine, it’s not the answer to every issue.


According to you, what are the challenges 3D printing still needs to overcome to reach a wider adoption?

First of all, there are some intrinsic challenges that we all know: building 3D printed parts that are stronger, cheaper, and manufactured faster, but we clearly are heading towards this direction. It’s just a matter of time.


Then, there are also some more specific issues, such as the ability to anticipate what is going to happen during the printing, the process being complex. The way we deal with this aspect keeps improving, so that’s not really the main issue.


According to me, the main challenge is the integration of 3D printing in the existing production processes, especially with machines combining 3D printing, milling, polishing, etc., in order to fully automate the production process. Moreover, it’s important to think of the way 3D printing can be articulated with other emerging technologies, such as IoT, biomimicry, machine learning, etc., because that’s surely this which will democratize 3D printing, just like what happened with the PC which was not very useful on a daily basis, before being combined with paper printing, internet, digital photographs, etc.


Finally, there’s also a problem of education to this technology. 3D printing is complex, and we need to develop some skills to fully enjoy its potential.


Finally, what are your tips to build an effective innovation strategy?

The efficient innovation strategy is openness. It’s hard to stay closed in a world where many people can innovate, where numerous companies, or even individuals, can enter a market, even the less expected ones. Thus, it’s very hard to resist this innovation wave.


Experience clearly showed that refusing to change puts companies in dangerous positions. Two good examples of this phenomenon are the music and film industries who totally missed the wave of digitization and have been outperformed by newcomers (Apple, Netflix, Spotify).


Moreover, we have no clue about the uses that will be made of technologies. For instance, the use of the Internet has been created based on what we knew: mail, catalogs, shops. We basically reproduced what existed offline, but nobody could have imagined social media, collaborative encyclopedias, YouTubers, etc., just because it didn’t exist anywhere else. 


To innovate radically, it’s enough to reproduce with 3D printing what has been made before. You need to think of radically different uses. But we might already be too old to imagine what will be made with 3D printing because our look is biased by experience.


To create disruptive uses with digital technologies, you generally need to include the crowd. That’s what social media, AirBnB, or Blablacar did. For instance, disruptive innovation is not the fact that existing taxi companies create their mobile application, it’s collaborative business models such as Blablacar which connect a multitude of consumers. Companies need to federate communities of users, that’s an essential factor of innovation.


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