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Tag: innovation

Henry Ford

This weekend, I paid a visit to The Henry Ford. Its a combination of multiple venues — a museum, an outdoor “innovation village”, a Ford Motors factory tour — which collectively celebrate America’s rich history of innovation and manufacturing and, in particular, the legacy of Henry Ford and the Ford Motors company he built.

While ambitious super-CEOs like Larry Page (Google), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) with their tentacles in everything sometimes seem like a modern phenomena, The Henry Ford shows that they are just a modern-day reincarnations of the super-CEOs of yesteryear. Except, instead of pioneering software at scale, electric vehicles, and AI assistants, Ford was instrumental in the creation of assembly line mass production, the automotive industry (Ford developed the first car that the middle class could actually afford), the aerospace industry (Ford helped develop some of America’s first successful passenger planes), the forty hour workweek, and even the charcoal briquet (part of a drive to figure out what to do with the lumber waste that came from procuring the wood needed to build Model T’s).

In the same way that the tech giants of today pursue “moonshots” like drone delivery and self-driving cars, Ford pushed the frontier with its own moonshots: creating cars out of bioplastic, developing biofuels, and even an early collaboration with Thomas Edison to build an electric car.

It was a striking parallel, and also an instructional one for any company that believes they can stay on top forever: despite the moonshots and the technology advantages, new technologies, market forces, and global shifts come one after the other and yesterday’s Ford (eventually) gets supplanted by tomorrow’s Tesla.

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Disruptive Innovation in one Chart

There are few examples of disruptive innovation as clear as what happened to Research in Motion/Blackberry, the former giant when it came to smart mobile devices for businesspeople (and a device which was previously super-important to me). Despite a seemingly unassailable market position and huge profits, they were caught off-guard by the more software-and-consumer centric smartphone wave that followed, the result being an astonishing 94% loss in company value in 5 years (HT: Quartz):

blackberry-share-price-2

Only the paranoid survive indeed…

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3D Printing as Disruptive Innovation

Last week, I attended a MIT/Stanford VLAB event on 3D printing technologies. While I had previously been aware of 3D printing (which works basically the way it sounds) as a way of helping companies and startups do quick prototypes or letting geeks of the “maker” persuasion make random knickknacks, it was at the event that I started to recognize the technology’s disruptive potential in manufacturing. While the conference itself was actually more about personal use for 3D printing, when I thought about the applications in the industrial/business world, it was literally like seeing the first part/introduction of a new chapter or case study from Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (and inspiration for one of the more popular blog posts here :-)) play out right in front of me:

  • Like many other disruptive innovations when they began, 3D printing today is unable to serve the broader manufacturing “market”. Generally speaking, the time needed per unit output, the poor “print resolution”, the upfront capital costs, and some of the limitations in terms of materials are among the reasons that the technology as it stands today is uncompetitive with traditional mass manufacturing.
  • Even if 3D printing were competitive today, there are big internal and external stumbling blocks which would probably make it very difficult for existing large companies to embrace it. Today’s heavyweight manufacturers are organized and incentivized internally along the lines of traditional assembly line manufacturing. They also lack the partners, channels, and supply chain relationships (among others) externally that they would need to succeed.
  • While 3D printing today is very disadvantaged relative to traditional manufacturing technologies (most notably in speed and upfront cost), it is extremely good at certain things which make it a phenomenal technology for certain use cases:
    • Rapid design to production: Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques which take significant initial tooling and setup, once you have a 3D printer and an idea, all you need to do is print the darn thing! At the conference, one of the panelists gave a great example: a designer bought an Apple iPad on a Friday, decided he wanted to make his own iPad case, and despite not getting any help from Apple or prior knowledge of the specs, was able by Monday to be producing and selling the case he had designed that weekend. Idea to production in three days. Is it any wonder that so many of the new hardware startups are using 3D printing to do quick prototyping?
    • Short runs/lots of customization: Chances are most of the things you use in your life are not one of a kind (i.e. pencils, clothes, utensils, dishware, furniture, cars, etc). The reason for this is that mass production make it extremely cheap to produce many copies of the same thing. The flip side of this is that short production runs (where you’re not producing thousands or millions of the same thing) and production where each item has a fair amount of customization or uniqueness is really expensive. With 3D printing, however, because each item being produced is produced in the same way (by the printer), you can produce one item at close to the same per unit price as producing a million – this makes 3D printing a very interesting technology for markets where customization & short runs are extremely valuable.
    • Shapes/structures that injection molding and machining find difficult: There are many shapes where traditional machining (taking a big block of material and whittling it down to the desired shape) and injection molding (building a mold and then filling it with molten material to get the desired shape) are not ideal: things like producing precision products that go into airplanes and racecars or printing the scaffolds with which bioengineers hope to build artificial organs are uniquely addressable by 3D printing technologies.
    • Low labor: The printer takes care of all of it – thus letting companies cut costs in manufacturing and/or refocus their people to steps in the process which do require direct human intervention.
  • And, of course, with the new markets which are opening up for 3D printing, its certainly helpful that the size, cost, and performance of 3D printers has improved dramatically and is continuing to improve – to the point where the panelists were very serious when they articulated a vision of the future where 3D printers could be as widespread as typical inkjet/laser printers!

Ok, so why do we care? While its difficult to predict precisely what this technology could bring (it is disruptive after all!), I think there are a few tantalizing possibilities of how the manufacturing game might change to consider:

  • The ability to do rapid design to production means you could do fast fashion for everything – in the same way that companies like Zara can produce thousands of different products in a season (and quickly change them to meet new trends/styles), broader adoption of 3D printing could lead to the rise of new companies where design/operational flexibility and speed are king, as the companies best able to fit their products to the flavor-of-the-month gain more traction.
  • The ability to do customization means you can manufacture custom parts/products cost-effectively and without holding as much inventory; production only needs to begin after an order is on hand (no reason to hold extra “copies” of something that may go out of fashion/go bad in storage when you can print stuff on the fly) and the lack of retooling means companies can be a lot more flexible in terms of using customization to get more customers.
  • I’m not sure how all the second/third-order effects play out, but this could also put a damper on outsourced manufacturing to countries like China/India – who cares about cheaper manufacturing labor overseas when 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture locally without much labor and avoid import duties, shipping delays, and the need to hold on to parts/inventory?

I think there’s a ton of potential for the technology itself and its applications, and the possible consequences for how manufacturing will evolve are staggering. Yes, we are probably a long way off from seeing this, but I think we are on the verge of seeing a disruptive innovation take place, and if you’re anything like me, you’re excited to see it play out.

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Russia dreams of Silicon Valley sheep

image The Economist has an interesting article on the Kremlin’s latest push to modernize Russia’s economy and kick-start a wave of innovation which would supposedly lead to a “Russia with nuclear-powered spaceships and supercomputers.”

Far-fetched as this premise sounded, the article raised many thought-provoking questions on whether or not (and how) Russia could hope to build an innovation hub similar to the US’s Silicon Valley. One tidbit I found very interesting was that this isn’t the first time the Kremlin has tried something like this. Apparently, the Soviet Union, had attempted something similar in the past with very interesting political ramifications:

In the 1930s leading Soviet engineers arrested by Stalin laboured in special prison laboratories within the gulag. After the war, when Stalin required an atomic bomb, a special secret town was established where nuclear physicists lived in relative comfort, but still surrounded by barbed wire. Subsequently hundreds of secret construction bureaus, research institutes and scientific towns were set up across the Soviet Union to serve the military-industrial complex. They also spawned a technical intelligentsia. In the 1980s it was this class of educated people—permitted more freedom and better food than the rest of the country, but still poorly paid and not allowed to go abroad—that became the support base of perestroika [former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to liberalize/open up the Soviet Union which ultimately resulted in its collapse].

Russia’s rulers, however, seem keen on breaking this link between political openness/democracy and innovation:

Yet the experience of Mr. Gorbachev’s perestroika—which started with talk of technological renewal but ended in the collapse of the Soviet system—has persuaded the Kremlin to define modernisation strictly within technological boundaries. Hence Mr Medvedev’s warning not to rush political reforms. His supporters argue that only authoritarian government is capable of bringing the country into the 21st century. “Consolidated state power is the only instrument of modernisation in Russia. And, let me assure you, it is the only one possible,” said Vladislav Surkov [the Kremlin’s “chief ideologist” who put forth the current plan]

Is Surkov right about the lack of importance of democracy and political freedom? It’s hard to say for sure, but the success of the Asian tigers (esp. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China) in this arena suggests that, at first glance, Surkov is right. Innovation and rapid economic growth do not require democracy so much as:

  1. effective and (relatively) un-corrupt governments
  2. free market systems which allow for consumer/business choice and property rights protection
  3. government investment in “innovation hubs” (e.g., Silicon Valley) where companies/universities/individuals readily share insights and collaborate

Of course, the flip side of the argument, is that its pretty rare for (1) and (2) to exist without democracy and at least basic political systems in place around due process and the respect for individual rights.

imageA successful attempt on (3) is difficult, regardless of the type of government authority (think of the countless failed attempts by cities, states, and countries to replicate Silicon Valley), but is especially difficult for “command regimes” in attempting to encourage innovation. It’s much simpler for an authoritarian government to find ways to double steel production (a la the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans) than it is for an authoritarian regime to encourage the trial & error, open exchange of ideas, and “disorganized” development which is necessary to drive innovative technology disruptions (which by definition can’t be “commanded”).

I’ve even heard it theorized that one reason the Soviet military elite allowed the perestroika which helped lead to its eventual collapse was their recognition that authoritarian regimes were not effective at encouraging the sort of innovation needed to build the computer technology which was giving (and still gives) the US its military advantage over the rest of the world.

But the harshest (and snarkiest) indictment of Russia’s short-sighted strategy here comes at the end of the Economist piece:

Mr Surkov is quite right when he argues that democracy would not stimulate technical innovation. The reason for this, however, is that under democracy a country with a declining population, a frighteningly high rate of birth defects, crumbling infrastructure and deteriorating schools might find a better use for taxpayers’ money than pouring it into Mr. Surkov’s Silicon Valley dreams.

Russia’s economy will likely grow quickly, regardless of the success of the Kremlin’s latest plans, by virtue of its resourceful population and economic convergence, but I suspect its future in terms of quality of life and innovation depends on whether it ever gets around to its much-needed political reforms.

(Image credit) (Image credit)

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