TRIZ Tutorial #6

Alla Zusman and Boris Zlotin
Ideation International Inc.


SMART LITTLE CREATURES

In the last tutorial we discussed how physical, chemical and other effects can be very useful in solving inventive problems.  When it comes to practical implementation, however, it is not always clear how and when to utilize an effect.

The following is taken from The Inventor Came to Class[1]:

An inventor sat at the back of a classroom and watched as a high-school student struggled with a problem at the blackboard.  The student was trying to explain a physical phenomenon that the physics teacher had demonstrated.  The teacher had placed an object that was lighter than water into a beaker of water.  Normally, the object would float on the surface, but in this case it sat on the bottom of the vessel.  Why?

The student explained, "This object, which is pressed tightly to the bottom of the water-filled beaker, is lighter than water.  But it doesn’t float because … er, the atoms … the molecules … umm, the object replaces…"  Finally, he gave up.

The inventor could stand it no longer: "There are no atoms or molecules there -- just a bunch of Smart Little Creatures!  May I?" he said, requesting permission to address the class.  "Sure," said the teacher.  The students sat in surprised silence as the inventor approached the blackboard.

"Atoms and molecules are always there, of course, but let’s forget about them for a moment.  Instead, imagine that water consists of tiny creatures – like miniature people, with arms and legs and such.  They are crowded together, pushing against one another as each tries to occupy a space in the vessel.  In fact, we can demonstrate this ourselves," he called to the students.  "Everyone come up here!"

Half the class crowded around the inventor, representing the tiny water creatures.  "Now, everyone try to push toward the wall.  This is similar to gravity forcing the water particles to the bottom of the beaker."  After some elbowing and shoving, several rows of students filled the narrow space between the wall and the first row of desks.

Next, a "heavy object" was brought into the scene -- a large student named Jim.  Jim’s friends laughed as he pushed them aside and forced his way to the wall.  As the group freed up space for Jim, the "level of liquid in the vessel rose."  There was still movement in the group, however: according to the stated conditions of the "problem," the other students tried to push Jim away as he successfully resisted them.  Then Tom, the smallest student in the class, entered the group.  The others easily pushed Tom until he "floated on the surface."

The situation was then changed.  Tom was placed against the wall and instructed to press himself tightly against it so that no one could squeeze between him and the wall.  His classmates kept trying to push themselves toward the wall (pulling was forbidden) but this only pressed Tom closer to it, preventing him from "floating."

The students returned to their seats.

"To better understand physical laws," the inventor explained, "we should form a clear picture of what’s really happening.  This isn’t easy, but a TRIZ technique called ‘Smart Little Creature modeling’ can help.  To use this technique, we imagine that we have a bunch of small creatures at our disposal.  These creatures are "smart" because they are alive and fairly intelligent, enough so that they can understand and follow certain commands.  We simply need to know how to command them."

The Smart Little Creature (SLC) method[2] was invented by the originator of TRIZ, Genrich Altshuller, in the 1960s.  It was very helpful in its own right and was also used as part of the Algorithm for Inventive Problem Solving (ARIZ).  The main benefits of the SLC method are:

  • It aids in the understanding of processes at the physical or chemical level (the so-called micro-level)

  • It helps the problem solver overcome psychological inertia induced by the use of specialized terminology.

SLC analogies are an effective way to explain physical laws and phenomena to children.  For example, a chain of SLC firmly holding hands can be used to illustrate a solid body.  Commanding the SLC to "loosen" without letting go demonstrates the phenomena of thermal expansion.  A crowd of SLC running around frantically is a good model for a gas, and so on.  The main idea is that the creatures do not understand words but instead obey "fields."  For example, an increase in temperature releases the links between the (solid) creatures, converting them into a gas.

The SLC method is very effective when dealing with complex situations.

Invention 43. Producing concrete parts

To produce concrete parts, a mixture of cement, water and sand is poured into a shaped metal form to solidify.  As it hardens, the mixture sticks to the metal form, which must be cleaned before it can be reused.  Moreover, the form deteriorates over time due to the adhered concrete. 

The physical (chemical) nature of "sticking" can be explained as follows: Typically, concrete is prepared from cement (in powder form), water and sand.  When a cement particle absorbs a drop of water, it becomes sticky and binds together with the sand, creating hard concrete (after solidifying, of course).  How can sticking be prevented?

Common sense tells us that it might be helpful to introduce some sort of intermediate layer, similar to a non-stick deposit on a frying pan.  Unfortunately, this conventional solution has serious drawbacks: non-stick materials are rather costly, and their susceptibility to scratching reduces their durability (compare how long you can use a coated pan versus a regular one). 

As we learned in tutorial #4 ("Resources -- A Pathway to Ideality"), the most reliable, inexpensive and durable layer is an "ideal layer" made from existing resources.  To better understand what resources we have, let’s use the SLC method.

As shown in the picture below, we are dealing with three different types of creatures representing the three components of the concrete composition:

  • Water

  • Cement

  • Sand

Which is the best candidate for a non-stick layer?  Obviously, it should be water or sand.

So, we have the material.  The next step is putting it where we need it -- the metal contact zone.  Is this a problem?  Not at all!  Remember, we need only command the little creatures constituting the water to move in the direction of the metal form.  How?  We must find a field capable of moving water particles in the desired direction.  We can find an appropriate effect using the table of physical effects presented in the last tutorial, and shown below:

Required effect (function)
or property

Physical phenomenon that provides the required effect/property

4. Temperature     stabilization • Phase transitions, including transition over the Curie point
6. Moving an object

• Magnetic field applied to influence an object or magnet attached to the object
• Magnetic field applied to influence a conductor with current passing through it
• Electric field applied to influence an electrically charged object
• Pressure transfer in a liquid or gas
• Mechanical oscillations
• Centrifugal force
• Thermal expansion
• Pressure of light

7. Moving a liquid or gas

• Capillary force
• Osmosis
• Thoms effect
• Waves
• Bernoulli effect
• Weissenberg effect

10. Separating mixtures

• Electric and magnetic separation
• Electric or magnetic field applied to change the pseudo-viscosity of a liquid
• Centrifugal force
• Sorption
• Diffusion
• Osmosis
• Electro-osmosis
• Electro-phoresis

14. Crushing (destroying) an object

• Electrical discharge
• Electro-hydraulic effect
• Resonance
• Ultrasonic
• Cavitation
• Use of lasers

The function we need is #7: Moving a liquid.  The appropriate effect is osmosis.  Function #10 (separating mixtures) is valid as well; a suitable effect is electro-osmosis.

A solution to the problem of producing concrete parts is as follows:

One electrode is connected to the metal form. The other electrode is placed into the mixture close to the surface of the form.  A d.c. current is applied.  Depending on the polarity, either a water-enriched or water-depleted intermediate layer is created that will prevent the concrete from adhering to the form.

Invention 44. Protection screen

To protect workers in a metallurgical shop from flying melted metal drops, special screens are installed.  The smaller the mesh, the better the protection.  If the mesh is small, however, it is difficult to see through the screen.  What can be done?

To apply the SLC method, we should consider two types of creatures: flying creatures that represent the metal drops, and guards.  The guards are positioned in the form of a grid (see the picture, below).  They try to catch all the flying creatures, but some sneak through the cells anyway.

A similar situation can be seen on a tennis court.  How can we catch all the balls?  The easiest way is to place many catchers on the court -- but then there is no game.  The "solution," of course, involves only one player, who moves quickly from place to place to cover the court.

We can do something analogous with our guards: have them move around quickly to cover all the necessary space.

Solution: use a rotating or vibrating grid that will retain all the drops while allowing us to see through it.

Invention 45. Induction melting of metallic oxides

To initiate the induction melting of beryllium oxide, a conducting material must be introduced into the oxide.  (Beryllium oxide is a dielectric and can conduct electricity only when melted.)  The conducting material introduces unwanted impurities, however.

In this case, our SLC model is a collection of creatures in the vessel representing the melted beryllium oxide, along with some "strangers" representing the conducting material used as the initiator.  How can we get rid of these strangers?  Actually, there are two ways to make the population homogenous: either remove the strangers or assimilate ("convert") them.

To avoid the problem, pure beryllium can be used as the conducting material.  As the temperature rises, the pure metal burns to produce beryllium oxide, while the molten material is free of impurities.

Invention 46.  Alternative to sandblasting components

After the hollow cavities of a component are sandblasted, sand and fragments must be removed from the component.  This can be more labor-intensive than the processing, itself.

Once their work is completed, we command our SLC to disappear.

Instead of sand, pieces of highly-abrasive dry ice can be used.  After the component is processed, the dry ice evaporates.  (This method is especially effective when processing rubber and plastic components, which become brittle when cooled.)

ASSIGNMENT 1

Try to apply the SLC method for solving the following problems:

Problem 13. Clay pigeon fragments produced during skeet shooting

When clay pigeons are used in skeet shooting, the ground becomes littered with clay fragments.  How might the process of fragment clean-up be improved?

Problem 14. Shaping diamond surfaces

Although diamond is the hardest known material, the surface of a diamond can be shaped.  How?

Problem 15. Production of porous materials

Suggest a way to produce metal porous materials.

ASSIGNMENT 2

Try to explain magnetism to a 6- or 7-year-old child using the SLC approach.


NOTES:

1. Boris Zlotin and Alla Zusman, The Inventor Came to Class (Kishinev: Kartya Moldovenyaska Publishing House, 1990). In Russian.

2. Also called the "Smart Little People" (SLP) method.


© 2004 Ideation International Inc.