Technology: Navigating Turbulent Times Ahead

Mar 29, 2019

by Meredith Nelson Mechanical Engineering Magazine

by Dr. Pallant Ramsundar, Assistant Professor, University of Trinidad and Tobago

Technology development has historically resulted in upheavals in human society. Civilizations with more sophisticated weaponry and better tactics inevitably dominate their less capable adversaries. Since the industrial revolution, in which large amounts of power were harnessed from coal fired steam engines, the pace of technological change has been steadily growing. In modern times the introduction of the microprocessor in the 1970’s heralded a rate of technological change unprecedented in history, resulting in product obsolescence in ever shortening timeframes. Developments in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology in the 1980’s further fueled opportunities for product innovation. In this chaotic environment, the determination of which technology to embrace is crucial for company survival. Many helpful articles and books have been written on strategies for success, but making the right choice is elusive and promises to remain so. There are three characteristics of technology development that can help practitioners and decision makers understand the nature of technological change, and prepare them to navigate the future.  These functions are Speed, Miniaturization and Product Intelligence.

Speed

Speed has long been recognized as an underlying factor in development, through its link to productivity. Increased productivity brings down product cost, thus enabling wider product dispersion and improved quality of life. Product speeds increase as technology improves and in instances where speed is restricted as for example by regulation, improvement has continued along the lines of increasing efficiency.  A typical example of the last case is the automobile industry, where the permitted top speed for the mass market has been unchanged since the 1950’s, and developments have shifted to areas such as safety, cost and fuel efficiency.

The introduction of the microprocessor has dramatically increased the rate of speed improvement to products and processes. Nowhere is this more indicative than in the computing industry. The Intel 4004 microprocessor launched in 1971 achieved a clock speed of 740 kHz. By 2012, clock speeds of up to 3.8 GHz were achieved for the Intel i5, a more than five hundred thousand percent increase. In the communications arena, the 1G wireless data transmission rate in 1981 was 1200 bit/s. Current 4G Mobile WiMax has a download speed of 144 Mbit/s, which is one hundred and twenty times faster. No doubt, the high infrastructure cost for wireless communication is a deterrent to faster growth in commercial transmission speeds.

Though the computing industry has produced spectacular improvements in performance, the push to extend boundaries exists for every industry and enterprise. High speed metal cutting machines developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century increased cutting speeds five to ten times that of conventional machines, while service companies like banks have reduced waiting time on some transactions from hours to a few keystrokes.

Miniaturization

Another factor in technology development that often acts in tandem with speed is miniaturization. Size reduction in a system yields benefits of reduced material consumption, reduced manufacturing costs, better portability and general improvements in efficiency and cost reduction. These are all desirable factors in product competitiveness. The clock speed improvement in microprocessors indicated previously, was possible because chip feature separation shrunk by a factor of more than three hundred, from 20 microns to 64 nanometers, enabling more compact structures. On a larger scale, weight reductions in aircraft systems have over the years, boosted payload capacity, range and fuel efficiency.

Miniaturization is closely related to precision in that smaller products require working in shorter distances. Thus, a convenient benefit of miniaturization is higher accuracies and tighter tolerances, which contribute to improved quality.

Nanotechnology and biotechnology have only just begun to make an impact on miniaturization, and beyond this region lies molecular and atomic scale manipulation.

Product Intelligence

One particular measure that warrants special mention is that of product intelligence. Automation has long been recognized as a vehicle for improving productivity and accuracy. In essence, what automation does is enable systems to carry out complex tasks automatically. Developments in the computer industry have revolutionized this field, so that programmable systems offer much higher degrees of complexity and flexibility than mechanical or other systems. Microelectronics has made it possible to shrink sensors and data processors to the extent that capabilities and features can now be unobtrusively incorporated into products. Increasing product intelligence is typified by the mobile phone which progressed from being a wireless voice device to one that can additionally serve as a media player, high definition camera, GPS device and internet interface. The automobile is another good example where product intelligence has been a factor in improving fuel efficiency and providing added safety with features such as electronic braking, stability control, air bags and collision warning systems.

This subject of product intelligence brings out an interesting perspective on the KIS (Keep it simple) principle. By simplifying components and processes KIS has traditionally yielded manufacturing and assembly cost savings as well as reliability improvements. Product intelligence however, is geared to simplifying the human interface, which requires product sophistication and complexity. The application of the KIS principle is still valuable in optimizing product construction, but the objective to make a more capable product must take precedence if businesses are to remain competitive.

Developing a winning strategy

There are many factors that determine the success of a product in the marketplace, and this includes all aspects of the business. With comparable business models, the product which provides the best interface experience for the user has the competitive advantage.

Although specific technologies change over time, their impact is to create products that are more capable. The key then is to use available technology to advance product capability, but to be prepared to migrate to new technology that brings about superior improvements in speed, miniaturization or improved product intelligence.  By keeping track of these three factors, practitioners and decision makers can not only ensure survivability of their business, but may be able to outfox the competition.

 

About the author: Dr. Pallant Ramsundar, an Assistant Professor at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, has been practicing in the field of manufacturing for the last thirty-six years and is a lecturer in Product Design and Development.