Disruptive technology? More like frustrating promises and slow progress

We are living in an age of ‘disruptive technologies’. At least that’s what everyone keeps telling me. But for me, like many engineers, the promise of it all often falls short of being delivered. And it’s frustrating.

In the Autumn Issue of Engineering Materials we highlight some early adopter applications for graphene. The ‘wonder material’ has long been in development and commercialisation is always said to be close. Yet, despite the promises, there are still relatively few clear examples of application. Many see the benefit and want to use it, but are not quite able to.

Of course, there is such high investment in modern materials and production methodologies that implementation must be clearly judged against competitive advantage. Those that make these big calls have to judge the risk vs return. Getting it wrong can be career ending... or even company ending. So there is understandably a fair amount of conservatism when it comes to adoption of new technologies and materials. Progress is steady, but slower than it could be.

So what is the answer? Part patience, part ploughing on, and I think part legislative. Now, I’m not one to generally favour political involvement in engineering activities. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the effect the 2020 emission regulations have had on the automotive industry, forcing its hand to lightweight, to innovate, and implement disruptive tech.

I remember hearing the news on the radio when the regulations were first announced. Call after call came in, saying that it was impossible, that this had placed an unrealistic goal that could not be met. How wrong they were. The industry is on course, and is confident it will deliver.

The wind industry has also responded to rapid political implementation of clean energy targets. Perhaps, here though, the move was a little too rapid. Teething problems have turned in to major issues, from leading edge erosion to the failing grouted joints. However, the big picture is, these are just hiccups and clean renewable power is making up a growing part of the energy mix. It might have cost a bit more, and not gone completely to plan, but it got there a lot quicker than it would have otherwise.

The message in all of this is that engineers, and those paying the bills, are fans of things going wrong. Indeed, who is? But this is the price of progress, or at least faster progress. So disruptive technology can be rolled out more quickly. Just don’t expect it to always go smoothly.

Justin Cunningham

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Comment Nigel Hayes, 23/09/2015
You make good points, but perhaps we should all think of things the other way round, that is from the bottom up and not from the top down. Sooner or later an engineer will be looking for a technology or material that involves graphene. None of us knows what it will be, and it is almost counterproductive to look for uses, specially before this exemplar/paradigm happens.
To give another example, steam engines evolved not quite simultaneously but completely independently of the concepts of thermodynamics. The technologies that produced reliability in the engineering were again completely separate. You can't deduce a steam engine from the Carnot description of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, nor from the technology of steel production.
And to be slightly more facetious, Jules Verne predicted precisely how to get to the moon in the mid 19th century but it took the independent development of many technologies and independent engineering developments, including computing, chips, long range radio and rare metal use, and more than a century before anybody actually got there.

Comment John Moss, 22/09/2015

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