Invention Machine and the Case of the Boxed-Up Box Spring
If you’ve ever tried to wrestle a box spring up a stairway or down a narrow hall into your bedroom, then you can imagine how comically awkward and expensive it would be to ship one via UPS or FedEx. Which explains why box springs (otherwise known as mattress foundations) aren’t exactly big sellers on e-commerce websites. But what if there were a way to make a box spring that collapsed to a manageable size for shipping, then unfolded to its full dimensions in the customer’s home? Then the lowly box spring might finally be able to join the Internet revolution.
That was the idea that struck engineers at Leggett & Platt a couple of years ago. While the Carthage, MO-based manufacturer isn’t a household name, almost every mattress sold contains some L&P components; indeed, co-founder J.P. Leggett invented the spiral steel coil bedspring in 1883. Despite the company’s history of bedding innovation, however, the L&P engineers weren’t quite sure how to squeeze a fully upholstered box spring into a box small enough to put on a UPS truck.
Fortunately, Leggett & Platt owned a piece of software called Goldfire Innovator, made by Boston-based Invention Machine. Imagine that you’re a product developer who likes to make notes and draw diagrams on a whiteboard— but that whiteboard is attached to software that understands the intention behind your drawings, labels, and notes; searches the Web and global patent databases for designs that employ similar concepts; automatically serves up references to related literature; and even makes suggestions about how to improve your sketches. That’s roughly what Goldfire Innovator does.
According to Vincent Lyons, vice president of engineering and technology at Leggett & Platt, the company’s mattress designers had Goldfire Innovator at their sides as they pored over the mechanical, ergonomic, and materials-science problems associated with building a collapsible box spring. Because the team could use the software to quickly search internal company databases and external patent literature for related ideas—including concepts already patented by other companies that the engineers would need to work around—“we were able to speed up the development of the product by at least a third,” as Lyons told one podcast interviewer. The result: the Leggett & Plat Semi-Fold Box Spring, a mechanical marvel that hit the market in 2007 and folds up into a rectangular shape with one-quarter the volume of a traditional mattress foundation.
I’m not the type to get excited about mattresses, but I was so curious to see how the Semi-Fold works that when I saw the Leggett & Platt box during a recent visit to Invention Machine’s 38th-floor offices at the Prudential Center I made the staff take the assembly out of the box and unfold it so I could take a couple of pictures. Seeing how elegantly the device opened up and snapped into its solid, unfolded shape made it easier to understand why Goldfire Innovator, after only three years on the market, has found its way into more than 500 of the Forbes Global 2000 manufacturing companies.
“We bring ideas to reality,” says Invention Machine CEO Mark Atkins. (If that sounds like an echo of General Electric’s old tag line, “We bring good things to life,” it might not be a total accident. GE was one of Invention Machine’s earliest customers, and the “o” in the company’s logo is shaped like a light bulb.) The company’s history stretches back to 1992, when it was founded by Valery Tsourikov, an engineer in Belarus. His own big idea was to embody in software the so-called “value analysis” principle at the core of Soviet scientist Genrich Altshuller’s Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (more commonly known by its Russian acronym, TRIZ). Roughly speaking, TRIZ advises engineers to assign a value or importance to each component of a problem, then prioritize their research according to those values. And Goldfire Innovator provides an easy format for doing so.
But Tsourikov also wanted to speed that research by giving engineers a way to search the Internet and other knowledge bases according to various types of physical or conceptual relationships, not just keywords. To a traditional search engine, there isn’t much difference between “a pump moving water” and “moving a water pump,” because, for the most part, they look at individual words or strings of words, with no attention to the concepts they embody. But obviously, the two phrases have completely different meanings—and Tsourikov’s inspiration was to build a semantic search engine that sifted and indexed the engineering literature with such key subject-verb-object relationships in mind.
“We do deep semantic analysis, looking at the structure of these documents and indexing them according to functional relationships,” explains James Todhunter, Invention Machine’s chief technology officer. “Everyone has a different view on how information should be stored and accessed, but through semantic search we can relieve the burden on the organization to structure information so that people can find it. The information becomes self-organized based on questions of design intent.”
The whole point of Goldfire’s semantic search tools is to supplement existing engineering brainstorming processes—including TRIZ, root cause analysis, and failure mode and effects analysis—that are “traditionally very hit and miss,” in Todhunter’s words. “If there’s a document [pertaining to a specific problem] but you don’t know how to get to it, it might as well not exist. Our software plays the role of virtual subject-matter expert. A design engineer could ask a question like ‘What could make this O-ring fail?’ and the software can not only sift through vast quantities of both internal data and information from outside the company, but can lead them through a method of thinking about the problem.”
But while even the earliest releases of Goldfire offered unique capabilities, Invention Machine had trouble explaining and selling the product to other companies—and, by 2002, found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. That was when Stamford, CT-based venture firm Trident Capital put $12.5 million into the company. Atkins was just coming off the $100 million sale of his last company, Vality Technology, to Ascential Software—and Trident brought him in as Invention Machine’s turnaround CEO.
In 2005, under Atkins’ direction, the company brought out Goldfire Innovator—a totally revamped, easier-to-use, Windows-based version of the software—and has been profitable ever since, with revenues growing at 50 percent year-over-year. The 200-employee company is headquartered in Boston and has international sales offices in Frankfurt, London, Paris, and Tokyo, but most of the company’s programmers are still based in Minsk, Belarus.
“It’s a big myth that innovating is about great ideas,” says Todhunter, who publishes a blog called Innovating to Win. “The reality is that it’s a lot of hard work. It’s not just having a brilliant idea—it happens because someone sees a lot of pieces of data and is able to synthesize something new. What we do is help people see the convergence of that data.”
Yet from time to time, says Atkins, Invention Machine still has trouble getting customers to believe its sales pitch. “Even when we show them the software, they say it’s too good to be true,” he says. But the company has one big factor going for it: the reality that companies must innovate faster than ever to stay competitive in a global marketplace. “Companies have this huge problem being able to execute ideas and turn them into products,” Atkins says. “More than 70 percent of revenue-generating products will sunset in the next five years. Also, there is a baby-boomer exodus coming, and the next generation of engineers will be much more digitally oriented. So even the skeptical customers are saying, ‘We’ll go ahead and make the leap.'”
And thanks to Goldfire Innovator, there might be fold-up mattress foundation waiting to catch them.