A unique robotic gripper
Imagine that you had the task of designing a robotic hand. Certainly the phrase "robotic hand" suggests modeling the human hand. After all, the human hand is incredibly dexterous and capable of grasping all kinds of objects. Most robotic hands are modeled in one way or another after the human hand. That is the obvious place to begin. However, if we re-frame the problem statement to designing a method of grasping and picking up objects, the universe of solutions becomes greater. Your attention focuses more on the general problem of grasping an object.
There are many ways one can imagine to grip and hold onto something, but researchers at Cornell University, University of Chicago, and iRobot pushed the boundaries of creative thinking to come up with a very unique idea — and it works! Their creative breakthrough involved coffee grounds and a party balloon — hardly the stuff one imagines when thinking about hi-tech robotics. I can imagine a researcher on this project after a hard day in the lab (possibly with no results to speak of). On his way home, he stops at the supermarket to pick up groceries, wanders into the coffee isle, grabs a bag of freeze dried coffee, and Eureka! Can this possibly work??? Read about (and see a video) of this unique gripper by clicking on the links below.
What I want to emphasize is the process of creativity. Now the supermarket story probably did not happen as I described it, but I am certain that the insight that a gripping action could be made by shrinking something from a fluid state to a solid state was probably triggered by a similar incident. We often work on problems in a linear and rational manner. Then, if we don't solve them, we let go of them and move onto something else.
However, the problem is still being worked on in the unconscious mind. Something completely unrelated in the outside environment will often trigger the solution. My supermarket scenario is an example of how this could happen. However the researchers came up with this creative solution, my guess is that it was a moment of insight that occurred when they were "off duty."