Sailing Ships, Wired Telephones and Floppy Disks

Posted by Bruce Brandt on March 22, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

What do these three items have in common? The companies that made them were all felled by disruptive technologies. To be fair, sailing ships and wired phones still exist, but not like they did in their heyday. When’s the last time you saw a sail-powered cargo ship? How many of us even have a wired home phone? Does your new computer have a floppy disk drive?

This week at MAVERICK we were charged with thinking like entrepreneurs, and one of the points on the slides was to look at disruptive technology. But just what is disruptive technology, and how will I know when I see it? That’s part of the problem — it’s sometimes hard to spot. As the Harvard Business Review put it, disruptive technology is initially less capable and less functional than what it will eventually replace.

Take sailing ships. The builders of sailing ships initially dismissed the new steam-powered ships because the paddle wheel design limited them to relatively calm waters. If you have a vessel with low sides, so the paddle wheel can reach the water, then big ocean waves would quickly swamp your boat. Range was another issue, since you had to carry a fair amount of coal or oil on board to fire the boiler, and you couldn’t use seawater in the boiler because the salt would ruin it. Doesn’t sound like much of a threat to sailing ships, does it? But, like all disruptive technologies, it continued to address its shortcomings and quickly surpassed the capabilities of the existing technology. So today, sailing ships have been relegated to pleasure or sports craft.

Similar things have occurred in our industry. Early DCSs struggled to replace conventional analog control, and later versions of DCSs are based on the disruptive technologies that have marked the progress of the PC industry. Early DCSs used dedicated, custom-built or minicomputer-based devices to drive their HMIs, which were all large-screen CRTs with dedicated keyboards. No one I knew believed a PC would ever be able to replace one of these $100,000 monstrosities that required lots of air conditioning and environmental filtering just to survive. Most of them couldn’t even display the most basic graphics, but were text character-based. Many of them were even monochromatic.

The “computers” that actually performed the process control were often based on very large-format boards that were custom built and limited to running just a few loops at a time. Some were limited to one loop per board. Redundancy was an absolute must because they failed so often, though some manufacturers used one loop per board to address the loss of a processor. Many of the manufacturers offered panel-mounted operator control stations that mimicked the old analog controllers, so the failure of the console didn’t prevent the operator from controlling his plant. Now we have transmitters that can do everything these old controllers could — except for the panel stations, so reliable no one even considers redundancy (except in safety systems.)

So take a look around and see what might be the next target of disruptive technology, and what’s vying to replace it. Once you spot it, start promoting it to your colleagues and the rest of the company. And of course, share your discoveries here in the comments.

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