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Retail TRIZ - Article 1 - TRIZ and Ice

Retail TRIZ – Article 1 – TRIZ and Ice

| On 07, Apr 2002

Retail TRIZ – Article 1 – TRIZ and Ice

Alan Dolman and Graham Rawlinson FRSA


Sometimes we should not only talk but do! As an innovation consultant it seems not a bad idea to do something innovative rather than talk to people about how they could be innovative.

In the last year or so more people have talked about TRIZ and the Retail Business and I have certainly come to the conclusion, like others, that it should have a lot of potential. But as we all know, a key to innovation is understanding what the problem is, or the need is, or what a big wish might be.

So I decided that I would do something innovative and find out what the problems are in the Retail Business – by joining the business! I did not want it to take over my life as a consultant so I thought I needed to do something local. Innovation should also be fun, so I wanted a job in Retail which was local, fun and offered lots of potential to observe and talk to people about what goes on.

So I started working at the local supermarket on the Fish Counter!

As a suggestion to my fellow consultants I would heartily recommend this. It is a very good way of getting grounded again, getting away from any hype and finding out what people do in real time, rather then what they say they do. I have learned a great deal. And I have had a lot of fun.

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of articles about TRIZ and the Retail Business. I have kept a daily diary which is now the size of a book, and maybe will become one. This first article is co-written with Alan Dolman, a colleague on the Fish Counter and also a student of graphic design. We worked on the ideas using TRIZ and we experimented until we understood the problem well enough to change practice on the counter. It works!

Removing Ice


At the end of each day on the fish counter there is the tedious job of removing some 5 inches deep of ice. The method used when I started was to bring out big buckets and some shovels and slowly shovel the ice into the buckets and then one by one carry them to the work room behind the counter and dump them into fast flowing hot water.

Problems: They key problems we identified were:

Carrying heavy and large buckets of ice over wet and sometimes ice covered ground is risky. You can slip and you can hurt your back from the lifting.
Dumping ice in hot water uses a lot of water and energy.
Shoveling and dumping takes time and is wearing.
The more time it takes to remove the ice the earlier you have to start clearing the counter so customers are not being served for an hour or so before the counter could be closed.
Prior concepts:

They had tried before to use a hose from the back kitchen straight onto the ice. There is a drain from the Fish Counter so the water flows away naturally. But the time it took was too great. Shoveling was quicker.

A TRIZ analysis

Identifying the Primary Function is quite easy with TRIZ. Water, as Ice, is in the wrong place. It is on the Fish Counter and you want it to be somewhere else.

As a hose had been tried before we thought we might try and tackle part of the problem first and see what gains could be made – if the gains were enough then maybe we would not need to go further.

So we tried Principle 12 – Equipotentiality – remove the need to lift the ice.

Combine this with No. 24, Mediator, and we decided that we could use a Trolley and shovel the ice into buckets which were at the same level and then wheel them to the sinks which would then be at the height which allowed a simple jerk and dump action, as used by weight lifters.

This did work and was quicker and safer, but we had not solved problems 2, 3 and 4.

So we analysed the problem in more depth. The hot water was carrying out the function of melting the ice. The hot water was being used as Principle 25, Self Service, so that the ice was melting and the water was moving itself (with the help of gravity) to a better location – down the drains.

As Self Service is a good Principle to use on any problem it is desirable to continue using it, so the question then becomes, how do we continue to use Hot Water to Melt the ice but in such a way as not to have to carry the ice to the back, even on a raised Trolley. To understand what we needed to do, we thought through what the water was doing. Basically it was supplying energy to the system.

We could idealise the problem by simply stating that our key function was to supply energy to the ice while it was on the counter. If we did this then the water carries itself away.

We realised that the comparative systems of dumping ice in the two sinks with two fast flowing taps against hosing with one pipe yielded vastly different rates of energy transfer. The reasons for this were:

In the sinks out the back there were two flows of water
The water flowed faster through the taps when direct into the sink than through a long pipe
The sinks trapped the hot water so allowing more energy to be transferred over time than when direct onto the Fish counter which had many many drain holes – noting also that ice when in contact with hot water rapidly becomes very porous. Many holes quickly appear.
We realised we were constrained by the laws of Physics in terms of how much water we need to use to melt the ice. Our goal was therefore identified as being minimum use of water in the minimum time without carrying any ice anywhere.

We could have two pipes and this would increase speed but would not solve the objective of minimal use of water. This has a negative TRIZ aspect in terms of increasing the number of devices.

Our problem was reduced to maximizing contact between the hot water and the ice. To do this we needed to minimize the porosity of the system (the counter and the ice had combined porosity functionality).

So we tried:

Principle No. 9 – Prior Action: We slid boards under the ice prior to turning on the water. This converted the counter into a device more closely resembling the sinks. We had to leave gaps still as the counter may not have taken the weight of the ice and all that water so there was some careful experimentation on how many boards and how far apart.

We did not like this solution as it took time to slide the boards under the ice and the melting rate was still rather slow.

Principle No. 3 – Local Quality: This seemed an appropriate Principle to use as maximizing contact between the ice and the water naturally involves getting local contact to be maximized.

We thought about the Resources we had available. We found an old baker�s tray with lots of small holes in it, so we tried pouring the water from the hose onto the tray which we had laid on the ice. This was beginning to work well. The ice melted quite quickly as the water was being spread over a larger surface area of ice. The device was not ideal on several counts however.

The number of holes and their size was too great (we had cleaned the tray too well!).

The tray was not transparent so it was not easy to see where the ice had not melted underneath it.

The tray was rigid so it did not fall into the gaps left by the melting ice, so direct contact between a hot tray and the ice was lost.

So we tried Principle No. 30 – Flexible Membranes

We had large plastic transparent bags for the rubbish bins. So we started experimenting with holes made in the bags which were then laid over the ice. The bags are filled with water which then flows over a wide area onto the ice. As the ice melts the bag sinks into the holes. The bag is transparent so we can see where the ice is melting and move the bag around if needed.

We now have a system which seems to maximize the potential of aiding local flow of hot water to manage the energy transfer appropriately.

The benefits are:

Minimal use of energy and use of simple easily available materials
Very low risk of injury/harm
Minimal time taken
Minimal effort
We could of course proceed to maximize the design efficiency of the bag system. But there is little to be gained from this unless we wanted to manufacture the device and sell it to Supermarkets! The device does have potential of course in other places. It could be used to clear ice off paths, off roofs, from playgrounds or car parks maybe. If anyone wishes to take this further they are welcome to do so on the proviso that the source of the idea is noted.