When Technology Goes Viral, a post to this blog from May 2015, is reprised below. That post describes technologies that grow at such rates that they disrupt, or at least redefine, entire industries – or create new industries. When Technology Goes Viral, however, didn’t mention the element of surprise that so frequently accompanies viral growth. Take LEDs for example, which are currently disrupting the lighting industry. Or Facebook and other on-line media which just this month redefined American elections process. Take a fresh look at When Technology Goes Viral, this time with the element of surprise in mind.
When Technology Goes Viral – from 23 May 2015
Most of us have heard of a Facebook post or a YouTube video that “went viral” on the internet. Like a virus multiplying, one person sees the Facebook post or watches the video, then sends it on to several friends, who see the post or video, then … exponential growth.  Contrast that with the incremental way we normally expect growth to occur.
This graph shows just how dramatic exponential growth can be. >>>
It’s not just videos. It is not uncommon for entire technologies to grow in an exponential manner for years or even decades. Here are some examples:
20th Century Examples
>> Electrification: In the United States, the first public electric generation and distribution facility began operating in New York City in 1882. By 1950, electrification was essentially complete across this country, serving a population of about 150 million people. Electric lighting was the original application, followed by a multitude of manufacturing opportunities like toasters and vacuum cleaners. Factories switched from prime movers and leather belts to electric motors.
>> Automobiles: Only a few hundred true automobiles existed in the entire world at the beginning of the 20th century. A century later, about 226 million were registered in the U.S. alone.  Ubiquitous personal rapid transportation redefined lifestyles and spawned more business models and value chains than I can count.
>> Cell Phones: The first cellular telephone was invented in 1973. Less than four decades later, in 2012, the number of cell phones in the U.S. alone was about 310 million,  a figure which approximated the total U.S. population.
>> Moore’s Law: In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, observed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit every year. Ten years later, he raised that to doubling every two years. That amounts to 50 years of exponential growth – 50 years of relentlessly increasing computing power and 50 years of plummeting cost. Good-by IBM 1620. Hello iPhone 6.
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, a recent book that one reviewer called “a godsend for those who suffer from Armageddon fatigue”,  describes eight technologies that may be on exponential growth paths just now. I’ve chosen a few of those technologies as examples that appear to be especially relevant to manufacturers:
>> Biotechnology: The current issue of Fast Company magazine named their choices for the 100 most creative people in business. Fast Company chose Charles Arntzen as the #1 most creative. Arntzen is a professor at Arizona State University. Using DNA structuring technology, he “engineered” a variety of tobacco plant to produce the medicine that successfully fought the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.  Bio-based technology promises new and innovative routes to new fuels, industrial feedstocks, and agricultural products, not to mention medicines. The Department of Chemical Engineering where I trained has been renamed The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Biotech and its potential is that important.
>> Networks and Sensors: The internet of things is really coming. In manufacturing, that means real time information on all equipment and all work in process. Then, connect across the entire value chain so that everybody (man and machine) has actionable information on the current status of everything. Defect rates vanish. Efficiency soars. Inventories shrink.
>> Digital Manufacturing: I have heard 3-D printing described as “neat, but not really useful”. Hmmm. 3-D printing allows products to be manufactured “hands off”, directly from AutoCAD drawings, with no materials waste. Today, cycle times are too long and equipment costs are too high for most routine production – although that is changing fast. For prototypes and complex special orders, not so; especially when exotic materials are involved.
This photo shows the Space-X Dragon manned space flight vehicle and two of its Super Draco rocket motors. The rocket motors are produced by 3-D printing. >>>
Exponential technologies offer untold opportunities to create new products, new efficiencies and new markets. At the same time, exponential technologies disrupt. Case in point: cell phones have exploded, while hardwired telephone services are wondering what happened to their market. These opportunities and threats of disruption apply all along your value chain. That’s one more reason why today’s manufacturers need to maintain a fully zoomed out assessment of the entire globalized context within which your business operates.
<<< The Chinese character for “crisis” combines the characters for “opportunity” and for “danger”.
Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.
… Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)
This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.
Image credits: Exponential growth graph – creative commons via Wikipedia, Dragon spacecraft photo – SpaceX (creative commons), Chinese character – creative commons via Wikipedia
 Cell phone stats from www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/mobile-technology-fact-sheet/
 Diamandis, Peter and Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Simon & Schuster (2012), especially Part 2, page 49f
 “The 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2015: #1 – Charles Arntzen, For Fighting Ebola With Tobacco”, Fast Company, June 2015 issue, page 47f