The Last Word: Practical Technology

July 31, 2007
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In the United States it’s dangerous to unveil a new technology before it’s ready to go to market. Customers are bound to be frustrated by their inability to purchase a usable product after viewing new technology. It is better to hold off demonstrating new technology until there’s a product ready to ship.

During the mid-1990s I remember a California-based equipment manufacturer brought its brand new technology to the industry’s biggest trade show. The technology was truly innovative. It was so far in advance of its competitors that it was the talk of the industry. The competitors were nervous, to say the least. Then, after the show, the bottom dropped out for the equipment maker.

Potential customers wanted the technology shipped in an actual product. That was never the plan in showing the technology, was the company’s response. They simply wanted to show that the technology could be done and demonstrate that they were a technology leader and innovator. The fallout was tremendous, and I remember that incident served as a warning that new technology couldn’t be displayed until a product was ready to ship-within six months at the latest.

Despite this and similar lessons, U.S. manufacturers would do well to remember that other parts of the world often demonstrate new technology for technology’s sake, and that they may never see a product for a technology they see demonstrated outside the United States.

In attending recent European trade shows, many innovative technologies were on display, but not all of them were available in a product that was ready to be shipped-or that might ever be shipped. I was told that the purpose of exhibiting the technology was to demonstrate technology leadership.

A quality equipment supplier accidentally revealed to me a brand new technology his company had developed. He was quick to tell me that despite its showing in Europe by the parent company, it was nowhere near ready for use here in the United States. It might not ever be, but the company showed it at a major European trade show to “make the competitors nervous.” I think it made the U.S. supplier more nervous than the competitors.

That’s how it is in the United States. Manufacturers want new technology and they want to be able to use it. There’s nothing wrong with that requirement. As matter of fact, it can be argued that the U.S. manufacturing emphasis on the “practical” aspects of innovative technology is a contributor to the gains experienced in U.S. productivity. This difference between the United States and other parts of the world is one reason why Boeing will succeed with its new Dreamliner 787 where Airbus failed with the A380.

In a letter to Boeing, Airbus CEO Louis Gallois admitted that the unveiling of the 787 made it “Boeing’s Day.” Not too long ago, it was “Airbus’ Day,” when the company flew the first A380.

I was in Germany during 2005 when the A380 was first flown, and by all accounts you would have thought it was the storming of Normandy again, but this time with Europeans pulling off the invasion themselves. The flight was hailed as a technological and innovative breakthrough throughout Europe and analysts signaled the end of Boeing.

Despite the hoopla, the A380 has been on the ground since then, beset with wiring problems. The unveiling was exciting, the technological achievement caused everyone to take notice, but no product has been delivered and that fact has left Airbus far behind Boeing.

As of this writing, the 787 has its test flight scheduled for August or September. However, having spoken with some of the people responsible for the technology on the 787, and the deliberateness with which they adopted it, I would have to suggest that Boeing will fly where Airbus has not.

Should technology be demonstrated without the promise of a product? Let me know what you think at williamst@qualitymag.com.

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