Saturday, August 30, 2014

Innovation and Hype

Over at The Economist, Babbage has been looking at the hype driving cycles of innovation & focuses on work done by the Gartner Group.
Back in the late 1990s, Babbage noticed that the waves of innovation had begun to speed up (see “Catch the wave”, February 18th 1999). The industrial waves Kondratieff observed in the 1920s came every 50-60 years or so. By the late 1990s, fresh ones were arriving twice as often. Fifteen years on, their frequency appears to have doubled yet again. Waves of new innovations now seem to be rolling in every 10 to 15 years.

It is not hard to see why. Rather than leave things to chance, all the big industrial countries nowadays have legions of engineers and scientists scanning the literature for ideas that portend blockbuster innovations capable of carving out new markets. Meanwhile, social networking has made it easier than ever for money and talent to join forces in order to hustle the innovation process along. In addition, today’s far broader channels of communication ensure that any new way of doing things becomes instantly known to everyone interested.

Sometimes too well-known. Indeed, the hyperbole surrounding many fledgling technologies, especially those in their early stages of development, can prove a costly distraction for the unwary. Firms on the fringe of some new development may have difficulty filtering the message from the hubbub, allowing expectations to lose touch with reality. Believing some emerging technology (say, 3D printing) is about to transform their industry, they may make aggressive investments that will prove disastrous if the technology’s impact turns out to be less than anticipated.
3D printing, for example, probably won't make much of an impact on the home market:
Several months ago, [Babbage] wondered aloud whether 3D printers would ever make it into the home, if the only things they could fabricate were small trinkets and gew-gaws out of soft or brittle plastics (see “Making the cut”, June 2nd 2014). He felt that, to have any practical value, personal 3D printers should be able to make load-bearing components—to repair things around the home like lawnmowers, washing machines, children’s bicycles and old cars. To do that would mean being able to print with powdered metals.

But, while industrial metal printers that use selective laser sintering do an excellent job, they cost $125,000 or more. Their price would have to come down by two orders of magnitude to have any chance of making it into the home.

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