Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Technology Substitution Requires Forward Thinking

Several weeks ago I wrote about some of the basic considerations in evaluating technology trends. (see here and here),  In those posts I discussed some of the dynamics of technological advance and offer some initial guidance to get you started in technology trend analysis.

One of the points I emphasized in those columns is that it is imperative to assess the performance of technologies, not at their present level of performance but at where they will be in the future.  Similarly, when evaluating the substitution of an incumbent technology by an emerging one, we make the case that it is less important to compare the present performance of the two technologies than their future potential.

To illustrate this dynamic, the figure below shows two technology s-curves – one for an incumbent technology and the other for an emerging technology destined to eventually replace it.  On the y-axis we plot some relevant performance measure of the technologies in question.  Note that this is not sales or market share but rather some performance parameter of interest.  For example, in computing it could be the clock speed of a chip (as was done for the original Moore’s Law) or the storage density of disk drives.  In the energy arena, we may track the energy conversion efficiency of solar photovoltaic cells, the heat rate of thermal generators (either fossil or biomass), or the efficiency of wind turbines. 

Note that, in the figure, the new technology begins life at a lower level of performance than the incumbent technology.  This phenomenon, which is all too common, often leads one to mistakenly dismiss the emerging technology as inferior to the incumbent.  But, in fact, those who do are asking the wrong question.  Rather, it is important to look at the potential of the new technology to surpass the performance of the incumbent which occurs at the cross over point shown in the schematic.  Equally important is the difference in performance limits of the two technologies, for if the difference is sufficient, the new technology will sustain its inexorable march to overtake the incumbent. 

Even if we do not have sufficient data to plot precisely where we are on the s-curve, it is crucial to know whether the technology is just beginning its upward trajectory or is nearing its performance limit. This is well demonstrated in a recent Washington Post article describing a prototype US Navy laser weapon system which quotes one naval analyst: “’Naval guns are near the theoretical limit of their performance envelope now,’ [he] said. ‘We can only expect very minor improvements in the future, whereas with lasers we can expect significant improvements in range, lethality, and accuracy.’"

Laser weapon on the USS Ponce

Were we plotting the s-curves for naval combat systems, as the quote implies, we might employ range, lethality, and accuracy as the performance metrics of merit.  In this case, even without quantitative data on these measures, it is apparent that this new weapons technology holds great promise to overtake existing systems and substitute for conventional weapons technology.

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