My wife and I spent two wonderful weeks in Germany, where I had a great opportunity to indulge my love for both military history and technology innovation.  I was excited to tour two World War II German submarines (a.k.a “U-boats”).  My excitement stemmed not only from the military and historical perspectives but also because these war machines demonstrated how critical good engineering processes are to technology innovation success and failure, as is an innovation ecosystem to bring innovative ideas to fruition.

Obsolete Designs

I had previously toured the U-505, on display in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.  What impressed me was how cramped the interior of this submarine is—you don’t get a full appreciation of this from movies such as Das Boot.  Claustrophobics beware!  What’s really interesting is that the U-505 is essentially a slightly modified and modernized World War I design.

The first submarine tour I took in Germany was on the U-995.  This craft is on display at the German Naval Federation Museum. This was a different model than the U-505, but another slightly modified (and cramped!) World War I design. 

These early submarines were more “submersible boats” than true “denizens of the deep.”  They were very limited in the time that they could stay submerged, their underwater speed (7-8 knots, much slower than their surface speed), the firepower they could direct at a target (usually four torpedo tubes facing forward that required 10 minutes each to reload), and necessary crew comforts (e.g. 50 crew shared two toilets, no refrigeration for food).

As the Allied Forces innovatively improved their antisubmarine tactics these German submarines quickly became “iron coffins.”  While a few innovations were introduced to marginally modernize subs like the U-505 and U-995 they were not game-changing.

Attempted Modernization Through Innovation

The next day we went to the German Maritime Museum for a tour of the U-2540 (photo above).  This submarine was a member of the new and innovative Type XXI class  of submarines that addressed many of the shortfalls of the older classes.  I was stunned.  One look at this submarine made it immediately obvious that something was different hereit looked more like a modern submarine than its predecessors.

I learned that a Type XXI submarine could remain submerged far longer than its predecessors, was capable of up to 17 knots underwater (faster than its surface speed), had more combat firepower due to six forward-facing torpedo tubes with power-assisted torpedo loading (ALL six tubes could be reloaded in 10 minutes), and had creature comforts such as refrigeration for food.  Very spacious inside!  This was clearly a design that alleviated the known shortfalls to create a true “denizen of the deep” that should have been a game-changing war machine.

Fortunately for the Allies, these incredibly innovative submarines had no impact on the outcome of World War II.  What happened?

I’ve dug into this to try to find the answer.  Several points emerged to tell a story of innovation failure because of the lack of an innovation ecosystem.

Innovation Doesn’t Just Happen—It Must Be Nurtured and Achievable

Let’s consider Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs).  This concept, originally developed by NASA back in the 1970’s, has been widely adopted and adapted by many industries.  The TRL scheme provides a yardstick for measuring the readiness of a new technology or capability for operational use as it progresses from concept through prototype to field testing and finally to production.  Along this path many problems and bugs WILL arise that require resolution.

The Type XXI submarine design was ordered into production in November of 1943.  In addition to all the innovations within this submarine design a new method for shipbuilding was also introduced—building ships in modules in different factories and then moving them to the shipyard for welding together into an intact vessel.  The intent was that this would significantly reduce the time to deliver a completed vessel.  This approach is in common use today in shipbuilding.

Delivery began late summer of 1944 but the new submarines didn’t enter active military service until spring of 1945.  The new construction method DID deliver a completed vessel sooner.  However, “completed” does not mean “usable” as the new submarines were plagued with problems that delayed their entry into the war.  These problems stemmed from manufacturing the sections in factories where the workers had no shipbuilding experience.  In addition, the new submarines required an extended period of crew training before they could enter active service—much more than earlier submarine classes.  Most of the new Type XXI submarines never did enter active service, and those few that did entered in the final weeks of the war.

Let’s analyze this scenario.  If we define innovation as delivering value through new ideas then the Type XXI submarines delivered little to the German war effort.  I see several contributing factors here:

  • Too ambitious a design.   Would a simpler design with fewer innovations have provided adequate value sooner?
  • Too ambitious a new construction method.  Modular construction brought with it some unique challenges.  Was adequate prototyping done?  Did anyone consider worker training?
  • No apparent approach for training crews existed before submarines became available.  It’s not hard to build a mechanical simulator so that training could occur without having an actual vessel, but I cannot find evidence that this was done.

My conclusion is that the Type XXI design and implementation concept was still at a prototype TRL level, and that some of the immediate preproduction TRL levels were skipped.  This occurred in part because of inadequate consideration of the construction methods as needing their own maturation.  (Yes, I do understand that Germany was losing the war and needed to rush new capabilities into production.)

The Take-Away

What are the lessons to take away from here?  I submit they are the following:

  • The delivery mechanism for an innovation may be or require innovation in and of itself
  • Consider the need for an ecosystem around an innovation when delivering the innovation (e.g. construction, delivery, training, maintenance)
  • Don’t “gold-plate” the concept—provide the “minimum viable product” necessary to produce “minimum necessary change.”

Don’t let this happen to you!  When planning for delivery of an innovation don’t forget to build the ecosystem necessary to ensure its success.

(Photograph above and article Copyright 2018 Hydra Technologies, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.)

Hydratech develops innovative technology solutions that incorporate proven technologies that provide value to your solutions.  A TRL assessment is a critical step in ensuring that innovative components are ready for production use.  As part of a solution we consider the complete ecosystem necessary to deliver and maintain the solution—people, process, and technology—through our Vision2ActionSM framework.  If your organization is ready for assistance in developing innovative technology solutions you may go to our website and contact us here.