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Moore’s Law – the observation that computing power doubles approximately every two years – can be applied in amended form to a whole range of products and technologies. The cars we drove 15 years ago look positively old-fashioned today, while a desktop PC that was the new century’s latest development (remember Windows 2000?) is now such a museum piece that it is unable to run modern software. If anything, the pace of change is increasing: the first iPhone was introduced as recently as mid-2007, yet the sixth-generation iPhone 5 was launched in September 2012. Constant change is here to stay.
Aside from its curiosity value, this process of continual product development and upgrading has serious implications for virtually every business operating in a competitive environment – and particularly for manufacturers. Investment in the latest equipment could give a market advantage today, but what happens in a few months’ time, when a competitor installs a production line using next-generation technology?
One result of this conflict is that in many sectors there’s a constant tension between making the investment now and waiting until a promised new development arrives. And it can be a really critical issue, because if a business delays too long in the deployment of truly ground-breaking technology, it will almost certainly have to spend time and money playing catch-up – and that could cause serious problems. On the other hand, investment in new technology is never entirely risk-free: for every iPod there’s a Zune, for every VHS there’s a Betamax, for every Twitter there’s a Google Buzz, and so on. Choosing the wrong technology could be even worse than waiting too long before deploying something revolutionary: at best it’s a waste of scarce resources and potentially it can be catastrophic.
For many suppliers, there’s an equally difficult choice to be made. On the one hand, everyone wants to be ahead of the game, to come up with exciting new concepts that will cement relationships with existing customers and attract new business in the target market. On the other hand, no responsible supplier wants to be in the position of supplying equipment to customers, only to introduce something subsequently that makes it obsolete – at least, not until the original equipment has fully repaid the investment.
Given this complex dynamic, it is perhaps hardly surprising that equipment suppliers are always looking to develop genuinely future-proof solutions – products or concepts that represent a major innovation but at the same time are backwards-compatible to previous devices. That’s a really tall order, particularly with electronic equipment, where a change of operating platform is often a pre-requisite for major innovations.
The bottom line is that genuine future-proofing is probably impossible. There will always be game-changing developments which affect the way we live and work, and who knows what the next one will be: another internal combustion engine perhaps, a different kind of mobile communication device, another internet? So, does that mean we should stop trying? Well, no of course not: but within the bounds of where we are now, it is important for suppliers to develop solutions that protect the interests of customers while at the same time improving efficiency, productivity and/profitability.
As an extension of this, automation suppliers must try to help manufacturers to create machines that can be upgraded, updated and advanced in the future. That way, end-users will feel confident that they are investing in installations that will have a long and productive working life – and which can, perhaps, be re-configured to incorporate The Next Big Thing, whatever that may be.
That has been one of the underlying drivers behind Omron’s product development ethic throughout the company’s history, and is well demonstrated by the Sysmac platform. One of the core components in Sysmac’s concept specification was that it should enable design engineers to think creatively, without limitation and without concerns about future obsolescence. When designers can think as freely as that, they can more easily translate complex concepts into seamless solutions.
There were two elements to this aspect of Sysmac’s development. One was that the new platform should allow both existing and new ideas to be easily incorporated in a machine concept, without the need to worry about hierarchy or other communication issues – which every engineer knows can stand in the way of innovation. The other element was the need to make connectivity as simple, fast and flexible as possible. And – perhaps uniquely – it was decided early on that this should apply not only to Omron devices, but to third-party products as well.
The initial reaction to Sysmac has been very positive, and it’s clear that it has intrigued and challenged quite a few engineers to ask questions and consider new design approaches. None of us has a crystal ball, of course, but maybe Sysmac is the type of platform where machines can be created that are, if not future-proof then perhaps future-resistant.