Editorial - Innovation: Look to the Spork | AIChE

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Editorial - Innovation: Look to the Spork


Tucked inside my bag, intermingled with my wallet and keys, is a spork. The blue titanium implement is the luxury version of the plastic utensil most commonly associated with school lunches and prison mess halls. My intent upon purchasing this hybrid tool was to replace the single-use plastic forks, spoons, and knives I used to rely on to transport my salad from desk to mouth.

If you do a little reading on sporks, you’ll find that they are surprisingly divisive. Perhaps it’s all in the name — portmanteaus seem to rub some people the wrong way, while simultaneously delighting others. Consider motel (a hybrid of motor and hotel), which one traveler might find quaint and convenient and another dingy and unreliable. Brunch (a hybrid of breakfast and lunch) is a meal some diners consider overcrowded and overpriced and others wait in long lines to eat. Sporks could be suffering from the same ill-advised branding.

The performance of the multi-tool may also inspire some ire. The shallow basin truncates into short, blunt tines. It is neither an effective spoon, holding little broth, nor an efficient fork, spearing few vegetables.

I’ll admit, I’m not one for the name and while I’ve yet to attempt soup, I am pleased with the addition to my lunchtime ritual. I may even argue, when it comes to meals outside of the comforts of home or a restaurant, it is an innovation. Put simply, an innovation is a new device or method, often one that provides a solution to an existing or unarticulated need. The article on pp. 46–51 explains that “a more-holistic view of innovation considers the entire consumer experience.”

The spork has certainly improved my desk lunches. I am now able to proudly shun the plastic forks and spoons on offer, which not only often broke during my feeding frenzy but shamefully contributed to global plastic waste and pollution. Plastic can offer incredible benefits and convenience, but single-use items, as in this case, can be easily replaced with little overall detriment. The combination fork and spoon function ensures I’m equipped with the necessary tool no matter whether I pack chili or pasta in the early mornings. The degraded functionality is actually a boon, slowing my food consumption to a more socially acceptable pace and aiding both my enjoyment and digestion. And, not to be overlooked, I feel the tiniest amount of joy when I wield the blue instrument, which is a great deal more than I ever felt settling for the plastic alternatives.

Despite its shortcomings, my spork has innovated my midday meal, improving my consumer experience and reducing my impact on the environment. It is worthwhile to consider innovations holistically, not their performance in a vacuum, but in application and in regard to societal needs and goals. A new manufacturing process that cuts production time and costs, but outputs unmanageable pollution, could be considered an innovation, but should it? Email provides clear advantages, but if it eliminates face-to-face contact with colleagues, are the benefits worth diminished job satisfaction and camaraderie?

As engineers, we can control the progress and application of innovations and set a high bar for their definition. We can also use our minds, adept at problem-solving, to seek innovative solutions to improve seemingly mundane daily operations, be it morning meetings, plant rounds, or even midday meals. Flexing this muscle often can help make innovative thinking a habit. While the impact of some of this thinking may be small, your next idea could be big. Get involved with AIChE’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneuring Excellence (CIEE) to learn more about innovation.


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