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Innovation Singularities

31 August 2020, 11:56 am


A few days ago, I attended the Factories of the Future expo at Manchester Central. The day after that I was at another manufacturing event at Old Trafford football ground, where one of the speakers quoted what, according to Warren Bennis, factories of the future would look like. This is the quote:

The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.

This image that Warren Bennis has cast is, frankly speaking, quite disconcerting, especially to us human beings. However, there are a few reasons to be optimistic about. For instance, no one knows how far into the future this will become a reality, or whether it will become a reality at all. All we’re doing is trying to predict/extrapolate what might be.

All we’re doing, understandably so, is extrapolate and predict what might come. The big risk in doing this, is the assumption that existing trends will continue into the future, and similar behaviours and conditions will exist. What the generic extrapolation models are not prepared for are what I’d like to call ‘Innovation Singularities’; specific innovations/technologies/processes/practises that have changed the course of how we do things.

Companies like Facebook, AirBnB, Uber etc. are some examples of Innovation Singularities that have changed the way we do certain things, all of which owe their naissance to the prolific growth of the Internet. These were unheard of 20 years ago.

Talking of Innovative Singularities in engineering and manufacturing, I must mention the Industrial Revolution and everything it brought to existence. After all, Manchester was the seat of it, and as a proud Northern Powerhouse business based in Manchester, we are proud of this city’s industrial heritage! A few decades later Toyota pioneered process improvement initiatives like JIT and Kanban, which can be broadly considered as Innovation Singularities, for they helped the company control costs, prices, and ultimately the American car market, a few decades ago.

Moving forward a few more years, Computer Aided Engineering and associated technologies like CAD, FEA, CFD, CAM etc. took this to another level. Then came additive manufacturing, also known as 3d printing. Today we’re able to do a lot more with how we design, develop, manufacture and decommission a product, thanks to advances in the field of CAE.

The point I am trying to reinforce here is that nobody was able to predict what shape or form our future would take. They made some amazing films like Back to the Future and Terminator, with flying cars (in 2015), scary looking robots enslaving us and so on, but these possible scenarios of the so called “future” are not where we are. Instead, we see that the humans are still very much in control of everything.

Technology’s influence over human life (directly or indirectly) has largely been, in the past, driven by Innovation Singularities and is likely to be the case. In our pursuit of a Better Engineered World, we seek answers to a number of questions. Some of which are:

  • How accurately can we predict or extrapolate what the future holds?
  • Can we make a prediction of in what area the next Innovation Singularities might occur and when?
  • Can we predict the speed of this resultant change?
  • Or have I over-simplified the vision of humankind’s future?

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