Product Innovation on the Wings of an Owl

What does high-tech owe to no-tech? How can the bio-mechanics of a bird of prey influence the basic product design of an advanced laptop computer? As noted in this magazine before, nature often delivers amazing insights that lead to fundamental design innovations. At a recent design industry event, I had the opportunity to speak with a member of Lenovo’s ThinkPad team who shared a fascinating story about a design challenge met and overcome with the help of an owl.

I asked how Lenovo, after acquiring the “Think” platform from IBM, had protected and advanced the value of that iconic brand among a potentially skeptical world of ThinkPad aficionados – among which group I count myself. “First,” he replied, “we kept the Japan-based design team intact.” This led to a general discussion of ThinkPad product design, and the fascinating story of a noisy laptop – and a silent raptor.

My contact related the following story,  more extensively covered by Matt Kohut on Lenovo’s “Inside the Box” blog. Lenovo had been trying to improve the acoustics of its internal ThinkPad fans, when an engineer from their Yamato (Japan) design center, while enjoying a break in a local park, saw an owl fly by, very close to him. The engineer noted that as close as the bird had been, it made no sound as it passed – no flapping, no gentle ruffling of feathers…complete silence.

Returning to his desk, the engineer began looking into the anatomy of the owl. He discovered that owls, uniquely, possess a notched shape in their leading wing-feathers that enables air to pass over wing surfaces more silently than with any other bird – among the traits that make them such effective hunters. The engineer studied the shape of the owl’s wing and used it to design a fan blade. The result was a redesigned, and very effective, product – The ThinkPad Silent Owl fan.

As for whether the innovation advanced the brand? As a ThinkPad reviewer noted at the time:

“(Lenovo) have once again raised the bar on reducing both heat and noise.  The X200 has adopted the “owl-like” fan design…The fan is amazingly quiet when it runs and does its job well.”

Sometimes, the right thing to do is just wing it.

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