Unintended Purposes

Shops should be alert to the opportunity they represent.


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Recently, I wrote about unintended consequences—the unwelcome side effects or unanticipated results that are contrary to the hoped-for benefits of some action. There is a sort of flip side to unintended consequences that is a happier topic—unintended purposes. Whereas unintended consequences are usually a menace, unintended purposes are often a boon. For example, a development originally intended to solve one problem might end up solving a different, more-important problem than its creators originally anticipated.


Most of us can recall instances of unintended purposes. The semi-sticky adhesive that makes Post-it notes so successful was considered a failure when originally formulated. Both Rogaine and Viagra were originally developed to treat high blood pressure, but became much more popular as treatments for other health conditions.


Unintended consequences and unintended purposes are related phenomena, but the energy and focus behind the latter is healthier and more positive. Unintended consequences are often associated with deviousness and circumvention, whereas unintended purposes are more purely inspired by insight and resourcefulness.


Manufacturing companies, which often find new and unexpected uses for equipment and processes, are familiar with unintended purposes. For example, a recent blog post (short.mmsonline.com/novel) highlighted a shop that figured out how to EDM deep channels in a part by moving a blade-like solid electrode sideways instead of downward. Another example of creative problem solving appears in the article starting on page 86 in this issue.


Not surprisingly, job shops are usually in a good position to spot a novel use for a tool or technique. They tend to have a variety of manufacturing resources and must apply them to a range of challenging jobs. They take pride in being problem solvers. Creativity and inventiveness give them a competitive edge.


Creating a shop culture that is predisposed to capitalizing on unintended purposes has merit. Consider these suggestions:

• Look for positive side effects or coincidental benefits. Consider ways to magnify those results or focus on the underlying cause and effect to discover hidden value.

• Share observations or speculations, especially at brainstorming sessions between departments or production units. Unintended purposes are often the product of cross fertilization between groups focused on unrelated applications.

• Encourage experiments, tests and tinkering.

• Take safety seriously. The line between a novel application and a misapplication can be a fine one. A new use should not be an abuse.

• Consider involving the customer and/or the supplier in evaluating concepts. Their cooperation can help perfect a novel approach or solution.

• Watch for opportunities to turn an unintended purpose into a product line or licensing deal. Respect patents and intellectual property rights—including your own.


Unintended purposes can be highly disruptive. They can be highly unpredictable. They can, and have, changed history.