April 20, 2016

Shattering Industry Changes are Already Here

Jack Uldrich describes the high tech “gorillas” knocking at the door

Author, consultant and futurist Jack Uldrich said it plainly at February’s Carbon Conference: “Your world has already changed and you aren’t aware of it. When you view the world with too short a focus, the new simply doesn’t register.”

The startling part was that Uldrich didn’t speak of technology new to us. It was his array of things happening now, or in less than 10 years that was eye-opening. Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing? We’ve heard of that. But “Toshiba is now working on a machine that will print iron and steel ten times faster than is possible today,” according to Uldrich.              

The same is true of new materials and alloys. “Nano particles are making steel lighter and ten times stronger, materials that are already in use on oil rigs. New welding processes can now bond aluminum and steel. And metals and other materials will soon be self-healing, repairing damage when it occurs.”

We know, too, that computing power and artificial intelligence are formidable forces in many industries. But they are just beginning to make an impact on industrial metals. “IBM’s Watson computer—the one that beat humans at the TV game Jeopardy—will be 1,000 times smarter in four years,” Uldrich predicted. Which will almost certainly mean sharp shifts in the way machinery and factory floor operations are managed.

Especially when this kind of intelligence is coupled with the so-called “Internet of Things” where remote sensors and intelligent monitors are embedded in a rapidly increasing number of products. “Just 20% of the economy is connected to the Internet today. Within 10 years the rest will be as well,” Uldrich said. “This, say people in the know, will represent a $19 trillion business opportunity for those who can figure it out.

“Sensors in roads and bridges and all kinds of machinery and vehicles will predict failures before they occur,” he said. “Deloitte—the consultants—have built a headquarters in Amsterdam, a smart building that is 80% more energy efficient than its contemporaries. This kind of technology promises a huge shift in construction technology and materials.”

Uldrich’s talk was fascinating, but hardly reassuring. “There are a lot of things that you believe you know about your jobs and your industry that are just not true anymore,” he said. “We are all on thinner ice than we think.”

But he did have solutions. “I call it AHA,” he said, “the big AHA. It stands for Awareness, Humility and Action.” He explained that we all need to stay on top of transformative technologies, stay aware of how rapidly they are developing and moving toward our industry. “But you have to approach all this with humility as well,” he said, “Make a real effort to try to understand what it is you don't know. Understand that when you haven’t grown up with this technology, you might not be the right one to judge its future.”

And finally “Take action. Take the time to do genuine forward-looking strategic planning. Maybe hire a reverse mentor, a person younger than yourself with a different perspective. Think bigger.” These are the kind of steps to take “to figure out how to innovate your way into the future.”

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