the future of research and development

5 April, 2007

Still having Etech 2007 on my mind. One of the themes this year was clearly the future of manufacturing. One session about this theme took place in the O’Reilly Radar Briefing.

A lot of people start hacking ‘stuff’. Dale Dougherty is the editor and publisher of Make and was part of the O’Reilly Radar Briefing. I cannot find clear statistics on how many people actually read the magazine, but here are some demographics. A countertrend at this moment is that ‘working with your hands’ is becoming unpopular in the American school system.

Brian Warshawsky has worked at Apple on the Ipod, but is now actively working on the $100 (or now called the One Laptop per Child project (OLPC)). The company he works for, Potenco, has developed the portable power generator for the OLPC. This work has radically changed through the way they do prototyping nowadays. It has become possible to draw up a product, and get a working prototype within a week. Either through 3D printing, or through subcontracting in Eastern Asia (read: China).

John Hagel gave some insights about how R&D and manufacturing is changing in China. This is most visible in ‘creation nets‘ (pdf link) in the motor industry in Chongqin (just a tiny Chinese city of about 32 million people). One organizer (in this case a motor manufacturer) has many parties (hundreds or thousands) working on components for a new motorcycle. Each participant has to compete with many others in the network for his ideas (and parts) to get into the final product. In the end the end-product is highly modularized and in a way standardised (per release). The key results of this way of research and development are:

  • The participants in the network keep pushing the envelope. In order to get business in the network, each participants has to compete to get a deal with the integrator ‘on top’. This way, innovation occurs rapidly.
  • In order to become a succesful player, the delivered components should be highly reliable. The outcome of the ‘game’ is that the integral bike is very reliable. This is a must because the bike’s owners do not have the money (or time) to go back to the garage every week.
  • Together, the network learns rapidly. There cannot be many secrets in the network, so everyone benefits from the lessons other competitors learned.

Of course, this network approach to R&D and manufacturing is not totally new, it has happened in the west also. However, the sheer scale of it makes a difference. This is actually turning a weakness of Chinea (dealing with IPR) into a strength: fixing some standards interfaces makes it possible to innovate within a large network

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