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The Changing Way we Work & Live – part 3

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid...

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first in this series of posts looked at how technology advances are enabling location independence for people at work, and the second looked at some of the socio-economic impacts of this move. In fact, the changes are potentially even more widespread further into the future, as a recent MindBullets post discussed.

Essentially, what this post suggests is that in the next decade or so, a combination of 3D printing – that technology is already available, albeit in a somewhat rudimentary form still – and cheap robotics will render manufacturing as we know it obsolete.

What’s more, this combination of technologies will make the production lines of old irrelevant as we move to true user choice in every product. We all remember the early days of the mass produced car, when Henry Ford suggested that customers could have the Model T in any colour they liked, so long as it was black. Contrast that with today where the buyer has, literally thousands of combinations of colour, internal and external finish, engine and accessories available to make a vehicle unique, or at least highly individualized. In the future, there will be no limit to the choices available as each product will be built/printed to your exact specification.

The impacts of this are, of course, dramatic – imagine the impact on China if its low-cost manufacturing prowess is no longer needed as it is faster and cheaper to make items at/near the customer. What will the effect be on the economies of countries like China, Mexico and others where a largely unskilled labour force has provided economic growth through mass manufacturing? And what will the consequent ripple effects around the world be as a result?

What, too, will be the impact on the logistics and transportation industries if there is no longer the need for transporting all the freshly-made products around the world? Shipping, air, road and rail transport, and warehousing will all undergo massive changes and many companies that are household names will have to adapt radically or disappear.

The Amazon of the future, for example, instead of having huge warehouses filled with a multiplicity of product and a logistics operation predicting demand and ensuring, so far as is possible, just-in-time delivery from its vast range of suppliers, will have a series of printing/manufacturing modules and will create products to order in a matter of minutes – and the only transport needed is to the consumer. As prices of 3D printers continue to fall, imagine a world where these are in every home, negating even this ‘last mile’ transportation.

There will, of course, still be the need for some level of transportation – the raw materials for the 3D printers and robotic manufacturing operations, but this will be much less onerous than the transportation of today.

There is, of course, still one area that 3D printing and robotic manufacturing has not solved – organic material. This means that food – fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, fish and so on – will still, for the foreseeable future at least, need to be transported from the farms to consumers in some way. Here, too, we’re seeing huge change today as increasing numbers of consumers buy this online, bypassing the need for physical supermarkets and shops, and we’ll look at the effects of all this online shopping in the next part of this series.

There’s no question that the current advances in 3D printing and robotics will dramatically change the way products are made and delivered and the effects of this on companies and countries will be massive. Technology is really causing the pace of change to accelerate more and more quickly – the future just gets more and more interesting.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 8 April.

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Can the Olympics Boost British Business?

Olympic Judo London 2012 (2 of 98)

London 2012  (Photo credit: Martin Hesketh)

An interesting phenomenon has hit Britain over the past 2 weeks – the traditional British reserve has been replaced with enthusiasm and a sense of national pride I’ve not seen here before. What’s more – the normally omnipresent negativity about almost everything (not just the weather!) has been quietened to a large extent.

This gives me great hope. Can we draw on this new-found upbeat attitude and start to pull the country out of its recession?

After all, markets are driven at least as much by sentiment as anything else, and a positive sentiment among the people here will inevitably lead to a strong upturn.

So, what lessons have we learnt this month?

Firstly, and very importantly for the future, that competition is healthy after all. For far too long here, and in some other countries, governments have discouraged competition on the basis that it is unfair to those less able. Hence the ludicrous situation of school children, for example, progressing through school regardless of whether they pass or fail their exams, and exam pass marks being lowered, too – the reason we have such huge numbers of school leavers who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. And then wonder why they cannot find, or keep, a job.

Secondly, celebrate success. It seems to me that the news services focus on the negative, and ignore the positive. With the Olympics they were even starting to be accused of jingoism, such was the positive tone of the UK TV services! I realise that disasters sell more newspapers and TV viewship of news channels increases, but it really is not necessary to focus on the negative / bad news about everything all the time. Hopefully, the record viewership and readership during the Olympics will show that good news also sells… And there is good news on the business front – not just bad. There are many success stories, large and small, from Jaguar-LandRover’s expansion to over 300 000 new businesses starting this year – some of which will become the market-leaders of the future (there’s an interesting correlation with market-leaders having more often than not started in periods of recession/downturn).

Thirdly, sport is good for everyone. Britain is already one of the most obese nations on earth and the costs of this in both human and monetary terms are massive. By making sports compulsory for school children – a minimum of three afternoons a week would be good – they develop habits that will stand them in good stead throughout life. It not only reduces the issues associated with obesity, but encourages both team spirit and competition – two things that are critical for overall success in life.

Fourthly, a sense of national identity and community, and pride in this, is good – look at the great work done by the army of volunteers! It really is time for the “Great” to be put back into Britain in the minds of its people. It turns out that not only is Britain third overall in the medals table, but has the best ratio of the all-important Gold medals to GDP of any country (50% better than the next closest) and one of the best ratios in terms of population size, too.

We’ve a unique opportunity to take these lessons and move forward strongly. To move away from a grey society where competition is bad, winning isn’t important and there’s no pride as a consequence. The results will be not only good for business, but a stronger, healthier and happier society, too.

Early Birds Make the Best Decisions

Board Meeting.

Image via Wikipedia

A fascinating piece by John Tierney in the NY Times explored the concept of “Decision Fatigue,” concluding that people faced with making a number of decisions do so less well as the day wears on.

In studies with Roy Baumeister, a clear correlation was shown between the quality of decisions made at a point in time and the number/difficulty of decisions subjects had been required to make beforehand.

These studies explain the anomalies in, for example, parole being granted to prisoners by a parole board – those whose applications were heard at the start of the day, or immediately following a break for nourishment, were considerably more likely to succeed that those whose applications were heard at the end of a session, or just before a break.

Car salesmen were able to increase the value of the options taken with vehicles simply by altering the order in which the options were presented: once decision fatigue started to come into play, the buyers were more inclined to simply go with the recommended/default choice, even when it was more expensive and, potentially, less suitable for their needs.

Supermarkets have long had their ‘impulse racks’ at the checkout counters, but the real reasons these work has only recently been understood – shoppers are fatigued from all the decision-making during the shopping process and so are less able to rationally decide against a tempting treat when this is put in front of them.

What transpires from the studies is that the process of decision making depletes glucose levels in the brain and that this affects the way the brain works. In essence, some areas of the brain will work better for longer: the reward centre area continues to function well, while that controlling impulses weakens. So, our buyer who has been through a number of decisions in deciding on options for the new car will look at fewer and fewer factors in coming to a decision and be more prone to impulse – for example, “those leather seats look great.”

Interestingly, it was shown that replenishment of the glucose levels quickly restored decision-making ability, so if our buyer chewed on some sweets during the process he/she might well save some money. Of course, using sweet substances for instant glucose replenishment is just a temporary solution as the glucose derived from sugar is quickly used up – that from complex carbohydrates and proteins providing a steadier supply over time – but it certainly can help in tough situations.

If you need a decision from your boss, choose your time carefully, and maybe soften him/her up with a piece of chocolate at the start of the meeting so the glucose can be absorbed before asking for a decision, unless of course the decision you want is one that does not require change to an existing situation – in which case low glucose levels will favour the status quo.

The bottom line seems to be that you should make your biggest decisions at the start of the day (assuming you have breakfast, of course!) or after a healthy meal. In board and management meetings where there are many decisions to be taken, ensure the participants are suitably nourished and their glucose levels are maintained. As the article recommended – don’t make decisions on restructuring the business at 4pm…

 

The iPad as a Business Tool

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Some 6 months ago, I posted a discussion on LinkedIn to ask advice about how practical a tablet – specifically the iPad – would be for business use on the road and received enough advice to encourage me to take the plunge. As a now-avid user of the technology, I thought it would be useful to post my experiences and the tools I use to assist others.

Background

Like many people today, my work involves frequent travel to London as well as meetings within, normally, a two hour radius of my home-office.

My excellent notebook computer, as is normal, cannot run for a full day without recharging and this then means lugging around a heavy bag with power supply, cables, etc. – not at all comfortable – while my smartphone is simply too small to do “real work” on.

With a 10-hour battery life and a 10-inch screen, the iPad overcomes the shortcomings of both notebook and smartphone – the question was just how usable it would be in a Windows environment like mine.

My Hardware Environment

Taking advice from several people I opted for the WiFi version of the iPad, together with a 3G data package from “three” giving me 15Gb of data a month with a MiFi device and costing just £18.99 a month.

The money I saved on not buying the 3G version was spent on the extra memory – the 64GB model.

Having seen a few other people using their iPads, I went for three “must-have” accessories, too: screen protectors, a capacitive stylus (from Boxwave) and a leather case with built-in Bluetooth silicon keyboard from LuvMac.  The LuvMac case/keyboard is great – not only protecting the iPad but giving me a built-in keyboard for very little weight, so freeing up the whole of the screen space for viewing. With about 100 hours of use out of a charge, I only charge it once a week.

My Software Environment

This was the area that most concerned me. Fortunately iPad apps are fairly inexpensive in the main, so if you make a mistake and get the wrong app for your needs it’s not a huge problem.

The applications I now use all the time (after some experiments) are: Dropbox, DocsToGo Premium, iAnnotate PDF, zipThat and – to access my Home-Office PC – Wyse PocketCloud Pro. Word and Excel files work very well with DocsToGo, although PowerPoint is less successful unless your slides are very simple and have no background pictures, so there’s a great opportunity for somebody to develop a PowerPoint-compatible app. I use both the Kindle app and iBooks for e-books and have a great business modeling app called Business Model. I’m also experimenting with a few other apps for Mind Mapping, general notes/drawing, etc., but haven’t yet settled on anything in particular. Of course, I have a few newspaper and news (TV) apps, too.

Email and Contacts on the iPad are very basic – workable, but not something you would want as your primary system. An Outlook client for iPad would be first prize (especially as I link to multiple mailboxes on various devices, including my smartphone. Another great thing would be a Google Chrome or Firefox app as Safari on the iPad is pretty clunky.

Setting everything up for my home-office environment was extremely easy and the RDP (Remote Desktop) links to my Home-Office PC from within the house (and garden) are very fast. Getting past my Sky Router and my internet security system was more challenging but that’s also now working well and I can access my PC when on the road if I’ve forgotten to put something in my Dropbox folder.

Conclusion

For me, the iPad definitely paid for itself in just a couple of months. I not only use it on the road all the time for email, etc., but also find myself using to take notes in meetings and events instead of using paper – so notes are immediately searchable on my PC, too.

If you have specific comments or suggestions for apps, etc., I’d be happy to hear them and share them through this post.

Blackouts or Nuclear Power – UK’s stark choice

The map shows the commercial nuclear power pla...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s a good deal of talk about power today: oil prices retaining their high levels in spite of Saudi offering to make up any shortfall due to Libya, nuclear back-tracking following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and so on.

How, the media seem to be asking, is the UK going to be able to generate sufficient power for its needs in an affordable manner?

Consequently, attention is turning increasingly to sustainable power – particularly as today (27th June), when much of the South East of the country saw temperatures break the 30C mark, was a day marked by the switching-on of the UK’s largest solar power plant, one near Wallingford in Oxford that is expected to generate nearly 700 megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

The trouble is, it’s just not the answer. Nor is wind, tide or any of the other “new technologies” being spoken about.

At present, around 75% of the UK’s maximum power generating capacity is from fossil fuel sources (oil, coal and gas). But, as we know, these resources are being depleted rapidly all over the world (and that’s apart from the well-documented problems of global warming being brought on through the use of fossil fuels). However, for any country – including the UK – to continue to see economic growth, its power requirements grow. In fact, it is estimated that the UK’s power generating capacity will have to increase by at least 25% in the next 10 years – and this figure may be low if oil reserve issues accelerate the necessity to move to electric vehicles.

“Green Technologies” such as wind and solar suffer from a major drawback – a lack of reliability and predictability (and that’s before looking at cost issues which are significant – huge government subsidies benefit the builders but have to be reclaimed from the tax-payer). The fact is that while they will generate power during periods when the wind blows and there is sufficient daylight, this is far from constant, and power is needed on a 24-hour basis. It’s simply impractical from a cost, space, etc., perspective to store such power (assuming you’re generating excess) to any great extent. Yes, the UK has some level of stored-power reserves (mainly using pumped storage technology), but this is limited to around 3% of maximum capacity at present and is unlikely to be able to be increased to any great extent.  So, solar and wind generators need to be backed up by other technologies that can be switched on immediately the wind or light levels drop – effectively meaning a doubling of peak capacity.

Wave power and Tidal power technologies, although more constant, have not yet proven sufficiently scalable, nor reliable, to be of significant practical use either.

Hydro-electric power is well understood, but the UK geology does not really suit it – which is why only about 1% of current electrical power is from hydro-electric schemes here.

The only practical answer is nuclear.

I recognise that this is a highly emotive topic, particularly in the light of the recent events in Japan, but the facts are that today’s technology makes nuclear plants infinitely safer than just about any other form of power generation. Of course, care needs to be taken that they are not sited where natural disasters are likely to cause a breach of the all-important containment vessels, but the UK is fortunate in being extremely stable geologically, so this is not an issue.

Nuclear “waste” – the by-products – can now be safely processed to remove the contaminants and reuse the rods in existing plants, or to utilise other up-coming technologies such as fast-breeder and fusion which can utilise the waste products.  Incidentally, Scientific America published an article showing fly-ash from coal-fired power plants pumps 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than any nuclear facility today…

France today generates something like 85% of its electricity, China is looking at 132 plants by 2030, Korea is planning to obtain 50% of its power from nuclear sources by 2020, as is Japan (still).  The UK simply has no option but to embrace nuclear power – and to do so quickly – or face much higher utility bills and a “return to the dark age” as power shortages loom.

BAA Humbug – The short- and long-term effects of greed and ineptitude

BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

Image via yfrog: BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

I’m going to try not to make this too much of a rant, but I’m both extremely disappointed and annoyed – not for me personally (thankfully I wasn’t directly affected), but for the thousands of people who’ve had their holiday plans, reunions and Christmas spoilt through a combination of woeful ineptitude and greed.

And, I think, there’s a real danger of this ineptitude and greed having long-term effects that are several orders of magnitude more serious for the country as a whole.

I’m talking here, for those of you who’ve not yet guessed, about BAA and Heathrow.

How can a company entrusted with managing the world’s busiest international airport be so unprepared for winter? It’s certainly not through lack of money – BAA is on track for an operating income of nearly £1 billion this year, and yet their total expenditure on preparing for snow and winter conditions this year was just £500 000…  (an amount the board has just allowed to be increased to £10 million – still only 1% of their operating profit!). In my view this is a typical case of short-term profit focus, at the expense of long-term sustainability (see my post: The Perils of Quarteritis).

It’s not as if they didn’t have warning. The first cold snap hit at the end of November and there were already warnings that heavy snow and icy conditions could be expected for the rest of the year. Granted, by then it was probably too late to have been able to source much new equipment in time (although they should have learned a lesson from January & February), but they put no contingency plans in place at all.

What about a deal with farmers nearby to use their tractors and grading equipment in an emergency? What about stockpiling grit, salt, glycol, etc.? Then they compounded things by turning down offers of help to clear the runways and taxiways from the military.

And, on top of this, they apparently gave out poor information to airlines such as BA which could have operated more flights than they did, and so reduce the backlog somewhat.

So, this corporate greed and ineptitude directly ruined the holidays for thousands of people, apart from costing hard-pressed airlines a good deal of money (can they sue BAA?)…

But the long-term effects could be even more serious. With some 30 million people a year visiting Britain, annual tourism expenditure of some £90 billion and almost 8% of jobs supported by tourism, this is a vital sector of the economy. However, the unreliability of British airports – especially one as important as Heathrow – is bound to make travellers think twice about using Britain as a stopover point, or even as a destination.

And airports in the Middle East such as Dubai and Qatar are eager to take these passengers. For example, Dubai is already the 4th busiest international airport in the world, with huge expansion already underway, and one of the youngest fleets in the world (and a flexible one, as Emirates was apparently able to put on 3 extra flights a day to clear their backlog once Heathrow reopened).

The impact of a diversion of disgruntled passengers from Heathrow to Dubai, for example, would have an enormous impact on Britain and on the struggling BA.

BAA needs to wake up, stop being so greedy and to accept proper responsibility for its role in running strategically important airports – or it needs to be replaced by a company that will do so, and quickly.

What do you think – should the company, its leadership, or both be replaced?

The End of Cash?

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

It’s interesting to see the number of recently introduced products coming to market which are designed to, in effect, remove the need for cash.

One that has garnered particular attention recently is, of course, Square. This comprises a small application that resides on your iPhone (or iPad, iPod Touch) or Android phone, together with a little reader that plugs straight into the audio input jack of the phone and turns it into a personal credit card payment machine that will allow the user to accept credit card payments from anyone for a small fee (typically 2.75% + 15c). With no costs for set-up, application or card reader this is sure to change the game for those tens of millions of small businesses, traders and professionals that have, until now, fallen outside the electronic payment net because they are too small for the card companies to serve cost-effectively.

But Square is not alone – Obopay allows anyone with a  mobile phone to set up an Obopay account and, for just 25-50c (plus 1.5% if you’re using a credit card to fund your account) send money – in other words, make a payment – to anyone else with a mobile phone, whether or not that person already has an Obopay account. Again, there are no setup costs.

And then there’s Intuit with its GoPayment service that also enables credit card payments from a mobile phone – this time with a Bluetooth reader – at a cost of 1.7% + 30c per transaction, although this service does have a monthly service cost of $12.95 attached to it (I wonder for how long, though, given the competition above).

Doubtless there are many others, too, either in stealth mode at present or on the drawing board.

What’s more, these systems allow you to build purchase histories by customers, offer loyalty programs and great levels of service more simply than the straightforward cash systems did – so even the smallest businesses can step up their marketing at little or no cost.

At present, all these products only work for you if you’re a US-resident/business, but it’s only a (hopefully short) matter of time before they go global and the way of transferring value changes forever from cash to electrons. No more looking for change, worrying about how the currency in a new country you’re visiting works, being concerned whether anybody’s watching as you withdraw a large amount of cash from an auto-teller…. And, of course, if you’re a small business, no more concerns about having the right change for those large notes that auto-tellers like to give, about the value sitting in your till, or being worried when taking your cash to deposit it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how society changes over the next generation as we move from cash altogether. Will the nationalistic bonds to a currency (and the resulting issues of payments from/to different countries and with travel) be removed, and could we find a common global currency?

And, of course, we’re seeing the continued drive for the mobile phone to be less a telephone and more a personal digital assistant in every way – clock, alarm, calendar, address book, diary, music player, radio, newspaper, camera, voice recorder and now, wallet. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how many of the Generation Ys don’t wear watches – their phones tell them the time. Has the watch industry got an answer to this, its potentially biggest threat?

We’re at a very interesting point in the 5000 year evolution of money as we know it. Will it disappear completely as a physical object in the next 20 years?

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