Open innovation: NineSigma uncovers solutions to the tough engineering problems

As a research & development executive in the fabric care unit of Procter & Gamble (P&G), Paul Stiros grew weary trying to create a product that would prevent cotton clothing from wrinkling while being worn. He turned to NineSigma, a start-up that promised to link manufacturers facing product development dilemmas with t...


As a research & development executive in the fabric care unit of Procter & Gamble (P&G), Paul Stiros grew weary trying to create a product that would prevent cotton clothing from wrinkling while being worn. He turned to NineSigma , a start-up that promised to link manufacturers facing product development dilemmas with third parties bearing solutions.

Not only did Stiros find his anti-wrinkle agent, but a few years later he found a new job as NineSigma's president and CEO. “I knew this was a concept that would catch on quickly,” he says of NineSigma's business model, which the company calls Open Innovation. “It addressed a real need, and it was providing real solutions.”

NineSigma was launched in 2000 by Dr. Mehran Mehregany, who got the idea to form the company after being asked numerous times by government agencies—specifically the national laboratories—to lend his expertise in solving technical problems.

To date, Stiros says NineSigma has helped more than 1,000 companies find solutions to engineering or technical problems. One of those companies was Stiros' former employer, Procter & Gamble (P&G), which had a packaging problem with a brand of laundry detergent it was selling in Europe.

The detergent was packaged in pouches made of a water-soluble film, and the pouches were placed in cardboard boxes. A number of these pouches developed small leaks that caused oil spots to form on the cardboard boxes. Customers selecting this brand of detergent naturally opted for the non-oily boxes. After a while, only oil-stained boxes were left on store shelves, and this started harming product sales.

NineSigma's search led to a solution from a small company in the U.K. that makes insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides. It turned out this company was using the same water-soluble film to package some its products, and had learned that the leaking problem could be alleviated in the packaging process. Once NineSigma connected P&G with this supplier, the two made a deal to address P&G's issue.

Searching for companies that can solve a problem— solution providers , in NineSigma vernacular—is the second of three steps that NineSigma takes in dealing with its clients, which it calls innovation seekers .

The first step is working with the client to define their need as a general scientific problem. This involves developing requests-for-proposals (RFP) that can be responded to by people in a number of industries—e.g., you get an agricultural products manufacturer solving a consumer goods problem.

In step two, NineSigma combs its database of more than 800,000 solution providers for potential candidates to solve the problem. Says Stiros, “We have relationships with professional and technical associations that redistribute our RFPs to their members, and that brings another 750,000 entities into the process. We also find that the people who receive our RFPs are redistributing them to people they think might be able to solve a problem.”

Once the NineSigma client identifies the best candidate for solving its problem, NineSigma introduces the two parties and facilitates communication until a contract is signed. Stiros says the entire process is conducted in such a way that neither party has to fear having intellectual property compromised.

“The proposals only contain the company's capabilities for addressing the problem,” says Stiros.

NineSigma is compensated by the solution seeker with what Stiros describes as a “small discovery fee” that covers the three steps for finding a solution provider. If a solution is found, NineSigma collects a “success fee.”

Stiros says NineSigma doesn't accept fees from solution providers because it wants to avoid any appearance of having a conflict of interest.

“A lot of companies claim to represent inventors, but their success rates are quite low,” says Stiros. “We don't want to be associated with that industry. We also set our discovery fee low so that our success is dependent on our clients finding solutions to their problems.”

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
2016 Product of the Year; Diagnose bearing failures; Asset performance management; Testing dust collector performance measures
Safety for 18 years, warehouse maintenance tips, Ethernet and the IIoT, GAMS 2016 recap
2016 Engineering Leaders Under 40; Future vision: Where is manufacturing headed?; Electrical distribution, redefined
SCADA at the junction, Managing risk through maintenance, Moving at the speed of data
Safety at every angle, Big Data's impact on operations, bridging the skills gap
The digital oilfield: Utilizing Big Data can yield big savings; Virtualization a real solution; Tracking SIS performance
Applying network redundancy; Overcoming loop tuning challenges; PID control and networks
Driving motor efficiency; Preventing arc flash in mission critical facilities; Integrating alternative power and existing electrical systems
Package boilers; Natural gas infrared heating; Thermal treasure; Standby generation; Natural gas supports green efforts

Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
This article collection contains several articles on the vital role of plant safety and offers advice on best practices.
This article collection contains several articles on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how it is transforming manufacturing.
This article collection contains several articles on strategic maintenance and understanding all the parts of your plant.
click me