Free Play Not Just for Kids Anymore

By: Karen Boman

Free play is not just for playgrounds anymore, but is being used inside corporate America to spur innovation in technology.

This free play can range from set periods of time during the day when employees are free to experiment with technology to plain play, such as ping pong. Cambridge Consultants is one such company that is allowing its employees to “play” at work in order to find new ways of applying technology to solve problems. To achieve this end, the company established the Cambridge Consultants Corporate Development Program. This program has been in existence since the company’s inception over 50 years ago.

During this time, the program has produced a number of breakthroughs – from new ideas that become core technology that we then licenses to different industries, to companies that spun-out, including Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) now a billion dollar company, Frances Metcalfe, associate director in oil and gas at Cambridge Consultants, told Rigzone.

“The CDP program at Cambridge Consultants is quite unique and a huge part of what we do,” Metcalfe commented. “Not only does it support employees and enable us to foster creativity in new ways, but it also enables our business as a whole to develop our own, non-competing IP to create a dialogue with industries.”

“CDP ideas always correlate to what we want to achieve as a business or some adjunct to that. And because we build our skill base to interest staff, it leads to greater retention – when working on things we are passionate about – particularly the motivated, intellectual employees we hire – we’ll want to stay longer,” Metcalfe commented.

With an array of skills under one roof, the engineers from one industry can quite often find a connection between how to transfer an innovative solution from one industry to tackle a technical challenge in another. This cross-fertilization enables industries, oil and gas in particular, to manage risk when introducing new concepts.

To solve the problem of offshore oil leak detection, Metcalfe’s team is capitalizing on the firm’s world-class fluorescence detection techniques, typically leveraged by the medical technology team in clinical diagnostics equipment like fertility monitoring and pregnancy tests, and broadening its use to become an oil spill detection technology platform.

“The CDP program is enabling us to pool our resources, if you will – utilizing our skills in sensor design, data fusion and probabilistic signal processing in order to identify and deliver a new solution that can detect the natural fluoresces of even tiny amounts of oil in or on water,” said Metcalfe.

Aveillant is another example of how Cambridge has taken CDP idea and transformed them into large, successful businesses through cross-fertilization.

“We saw the potential to use a radar technology – used for collision prevention and pedestrian protection for the automotive industry – for use in clean-technology initiatives. Wind turbine clutter is one of the largest obstacles wind developing in the UK, caused by aviation radar issues – wind turbines can mimic aircraft on an air traffic controller’s radar screen,” said Metcalfe.

Aveillant’s holographic radar technology will become the mainstream solution to wind turbine clutter, potentially unlocking many wind far developments while allowing for safe and reliable operation of airport primary surveillance radar.

Newpark Drilling Fluids also allows its employees time to fiddle around with technology and new ideas and see if they can make the idea affordable and profitable for the company, said Lindsay Fraser, director of technology for Newpark, at a media event in Houston last month. The company is always on the lookout for technologies from other industries that could be applied to oil and gas, and doesn’t discount pie in the sky ideas. While maybe one in three or four of these ideas work, these ideas are the gamechangers in the oil and gas industry. These gamechangers will be needed as the industry faces challenging environments such as high pressure, high temperature wells in deepwater, as addressing these issues in an environmental friendly manner.

Unplugged adult play offers two primary advantages, both of which can boost worker durability, said Washington D.C.-based professor, health journalist and author Jenifer Joy Madden. Madden is the author of The Durable Human Manifesto and editor of the website, The Durable Human.

One advantage is that, many jobs today involve almost non-stop input of information and data.

“What can sometimes suffer is the time to reflect and consider all the incoming input,” Madden told Rigzone. “Getting away from the screen in ‘play’ like activities such as ping pong allows the mind to digest information. Just as an idea often pops into our minds when we’re in the shower when we are “doing nothing”, new ideas and insights can strike when we take a break from the job.”

To spur new insights and ideas, Google has bought for thousands of its employees the online tool Headspace, which provides 10 minutes a day of mindful meditation.

“But a mental break doesn’t have to cost anything. By simply stepping outdoors, we get a few moments of downtime while nature’s breezes and scents calm down frazzled nerves.”

Having some unplugged play time also gives workers a chance to use their highly evolved muscles, which tend to atrophy when not used.

“Scientists are just learning that, in addition to pumping up the body, exercise beefs up the brain,” said Madden.

In a study of older adults, those who walked a few times a week lost less brain volume than their peers who got no physical activity.

“Being active also improves employees’ health and stamina and thereby lowers healthcare expenditures.”


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