Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 7: adding in exotic materials as enablers for disruptive innovation 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 8, 2013

This is my seventh installment in a series on the changing nature of production and commoditization (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 364 and loosely following for Parts 1-6.) And this series installment is about the raw and processed materials that would go in essentially any approach to manufacturing, whether traditional or new and emerging.

I began this series with a roughly sketched and selective outline of the history of production and manufacturing from strictly one-off, hand craftsmanship to modern mass production and assembly line systems – and with thoughts on an emerging post-assembly line personalized production paradigm that is still just beginning. And since then I have discussed how that new paradigm: personalized production and even personalized mass production are taking shape.

• My goal for this posting is to at least begin a discussion of the impact of a growing flood of new and exotic building block materials as they become available for production and for the manufacture of new and even disruptively new types of products.
• And beyond that, my goal is to discuss how this new cornucopia of resources is coming to impact on production and manufacturing processes and systems too.

I begin all of this by bringing this series back to the briefly sketched and selective history of production and manufacturing that I presented in Part 1, so I can add a new thread of discussion to it.

• When you look at the paleontological record of the hominid line that we evolved from and the more recent archeological records, and at human history from the point at which records were first produced and maintained – and where they still remain, one of the ongoing trends that emerges is that humans and the human lineage that we directly evolved from are and have been tool makers.
• And certainly for the span of this timeframe that we know through archeological findings and historical records, that trend has been one of developing and producing and using progressively more refined tools and products, and wider and more diverse ranges of such items.
• And one of the defining enablers for this has been our ever-increasing range of raw materials and pre-manufactured and processed materials that we build our increasingly complex world of tools and possessions from.
• We even divide this ongoing progression of our ongoing existence according to the materials that we have build with, and from our paleontological ages on and with them divided into the old, middle and new stone ages: the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras. It is certain that our ancestors of those periods made and used tools and resources of all sorts with more transient materials too: wood and grasses and other plant materials, animal skins and tendons and more. But they did not persist long enough for modern humans to have directly seen any of that, except for a few rare items from the late Neolithic (e.g. artifacts found in glacial ice) and anthropologically collected and curated items from a selection of isolated still-Neolithic age indigenous peoples; we can only infer most of this rich heritage of productivity indirectly from what has persisted and from what little we can still find and see.
• And when people began working with metals, new materials meant new types of tools and possessions, and I add new manufacturing and production techniques too. And we speak of the Copper Age and Bronze Age and Iron Age, and the ages of steel and plastic and more recently of the age of silicon for its utility in electronics and related technologies. And in all of these cases the single materials cited in those names simply stand in for and represent large numbers of new materials that also arose and came into use in the same timeframes. And with time the number of fundamentally distinct raw and processed materials that we have come to build with has become vast.
• So our prehistory and history, and certainly when viewed from the perspective of what we make and use, can be seen as a progression in the diversity of materials that we use and build with. And this becomes dramatically important when you consider our more recent history and certainly the period from the end of World War II, and within that over the last twenty years or so up to now in 2013. And this trend to develop new materials is still rapidly advancing and in fact still accelerating.
• We have witnessed a virtual explosion in the range and diversity of new and currently still exotic materials that are increasingly becoming available for manufacturing and production.
• And exotic and break-away new materials with new types and combinations of properties enable exotic and disruptively break-away new technologies and devices and the pressure to produce and provide them through active marketplaces drives a parallel development of new production technologies and systems too – and even the development of completely new industries and markets.

To take that out of the abstract, I would cite an exotic materials example that many and even most of us have in our homes and at work and certainly in the West, but that we do not in general even know to contain a profoundly exotic building block material: a small amount of an element that is not found in nature and that has to be manufactured to exist on Earth at all.

The device I refer to here is the simple and all but ubiquitous smoke detector, and the element that enables its actual detector element is a tiny quantity of americium: element 95 on the periodic table. A short century ago, there was not as much as a single atom of this element on or in the entire planet and it is likely that there never was from the beginning of our solar system up to then. The first known americium was produced by Glenn T. Seaborg and his University of California, Berkeley research team in 1944.

Almost every single commercial smoke detector in the world contains a microscopically trace amount of this manufactured element in its sensor. And it is the results of the interaction of the radioactive emissions from this americium and any smoke particles that enter that sensor that is actually detected, as that smoke takes on an electrostatic charge from the low-level radiation that hits it and because of that, attaches to a sensor electrode – transferring its new charge to that.

I cite this example for several reasons:

• We all take devices such as home and business smoke detectors for granted and rarely consider what is in them, and particularly as their radioisotope content is safely hidden away, keeping any radiation in it from escaping outside of its internal sensor.
• But this technology is built around use of what, upon reflection, can only be seen as one of the most exotic of exotic raw materials ever conceived or produced – a completely synthetic element.
• Yet we take these devices for granted, and even the most lagging of late technology adaptors purchase and use them at about the same rate as the earliest and most pioneering technology adaptors do.

A rapidly emerging flood of novel and exotic new materials is in development and on its way to product design and development and manufacturing. And the humble smoke detector, as fascinating as it turns out to actually be, can only be seen as one of a multitude of new product entries to come, and fundamentally new types of products as well. And just as these new materials make new products and types of product possible, these new products and demand for them makes production and manufacturing innovation both necessary and compellingly inevitable too.

I am going to continue this discussion in my next series installment where I will explicitly discuss nanotechnology materials, metallic glass and high temperature ceramic superconductors and something of their uses and potential to come. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 continuation page.

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