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Solutions in Search of a Problem

Dec. 8, 2015
The only thing stopping the next Industrial Revolution is us.
The only thing stopping the next Industrial Revolution is us.

“I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty... but I want more.”

The Internet of Things. Wearables. Drones. Virtual reality. Beacons. Sensors. Trackers. 3D printers. Personal robots. Self-driving cars. Hoverboards. Whozits, whatzits galore.

Five years ago, this list would have been preposterous. Laughable. In that pre-big data dark age, it could have barely existed in the realm of science fiction and make-believe.

But it’s all here today. All of these gadgets and technologies are normal parts of our day. Half of them are already mundane—just more commonplace tech in the clutter of our lives. But as we wrap up this busy year, let’s take a minute to appreciate what’s going on.

There has never been a time so rife with innovation and technological progress as this. There have never been so many independent disruptions forging so many independent new markets and new opportunities as today. Not in the first industrial revolution, not in the second, not even in the height of the dotcom bubble.

Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, offering us more new tools, more new options and more new smart things than we could ever hope to contend with, let alone deploy.

What’s more, most of these innovations are popping up organically. Amateurs, hackers, dabblers, and professional engineers alike, all innovating in a wild circus of disruption, crowdsourcing funds and launching amazing, doomed startups.

All of these independent hackers are offering the world solutions—exciting new ways to automate processes, add efficiencies, work harder, do more. But even with all that, the Third Industrial Revolution—which we’ve been expecting since 2012—hasn’t happened. Which is odd.

The problem, I think, is the problem.

We have all of these incredible solutions at our disposal that allow us to track, record, and analyze every move of every machine, worker and product across a global enterprise or create impossible new parts that can do impossible new things. But these are all solutions to problems no one can clearly or objectively define.

Just look at additive manufacturing for an example. Back in the 1980s there was a clear and defined problem in the industry: prototyping was too slow and expensive. The solution, dreamed up by three different entrepreneurs in three different makeshift labs, was rapid prototyping. Easy enough.

Thirty years later, the technologies of that solution have surpassed the original problem. They are now industrial tools, capable of making industrial-grade parts. They are standing by, ready to print the impossible and solve all of your internal architecture struggles. But did people ever need impossible parts before they were possible?

The same can be asked of the IoT. What problem does it solve, exactly? Was it a problem before there was a solution?

The answer to both of these, of course, is yes. Manufacturing has been hampered by countless inefficiencies that remained untraceable until sensors and beacons and the IoT were developed to detect them. Just like it has been hampered by poor designs and architectural limitations before additive manufacturing was mature enough to produce alternatives.

This is both the most frustrating and most exciting part of this technological phenomena. The problems are all invisible, all of them undiscovered and unmapped. It is up to us to take these tools, apply them in creative new ways to find the problems they can solve.

That is the next industrial revolution. It’s not waiting for clever engineers to fix our problems, it’s re-examining everything we do and everything we know through the lens of modern technology to see the problems we’ve been ignoring all along.

We are the next industrial revolution. It’s up to us to make it happen.

Travis HessmanEditor-in-Chief
New Equipment Digest