Software is adding more and more value to machines. Could it completely commoditize them?
I’m a sucker for a good plant tour, and I had a really good one last week when Jim Stogdill and I visited K. Venkatesh Prasad at Ford Motor in Dearborn, Mich. I gave a seminar and we talked at length about Ford’s OpenXC program and its approach to building software platforms.
The highlight of the visit was seeing the scale of Ford’s operation, and particularly the scale of its research and development organization. Prasad’s building is a half-mile into Ford’s vast research and engineering campus. It’s an endless grid of wet labs like you’d see at a university: test tubes and robots all over the place; separate labs for adhesives, textiles, vibration dampening; machines for evaluating what’s in reach for different-sized people.
Prasad explained that much of the R&D that goes into a car is conducted at suppliers–Ford might ask its steel supplier to come up with a lighter, stronger alloy, for instance–but Ford is responsible for integrative research: figuring out how to, say, bond its foam insulation onto that new alloy.
In our more fevered moments, we on the software side of things tend to foresee every problem being reduced to a generic software problem, solvable with brute-force computing and standard machinery. In that interpretation, a theoretical Google car operating system–one that would drive the car and provide Web-based services to passengers–could commoditize the mechanical aspects of the automobile. Read more…
We're exploring the Maker movement's role in manufacturing, business and the economy.
The growth of the Maker movement has been nothing if not amazing. We’ve had more than 100,000 people at Maker Faire in San Francisco, and more than 50,000 at the New York event, with mini-Maker Faires in many other cities. Arduino is almost a household word, along with Raspberry Pi. Now that O’Reilly has spun out Maker Media as an independent company, we look forward to the continued success of these events; they’re signs of an important cultural shift, a rejection of a prefabricated, shrink-and bubble-wrap economy that hasn’t served us well. The Make movement has proven that there are many people who want the joy of creating, whether it’s a crystal radio, a custom head for a Pez dispenser, or glowing e coli.
But the Maker movement is not just about hobbyists. We’ve seen a lot in print about the re-shoring of American manufacturing, the return of the manufacturing jobs that had been exported to China and the Far East over the past few decades. One of the questions we’re asking at O’Reilly is what the Maker movement has to do with the return of manufacturing. If the return of manufacturing just means lots of low-level industrial jobs, paying barely more than minimum wage and under near-slavery conditions, that doesn’t sound desirable. That also doesn’t sound possible, at least to me: whatever else one might say about the cost of doing business in the U.S., North America just doesn’t have the sheer concentrations of people needed to make a Foxconn.
Of course, many of the writers who’ve noted the return of manufacturing have also noted that it’s returning in a highly automated way: instead of people running around a warehouse, you’ll have Kiva robots doing the running. Instead of skilled machinists operating milling machines, you’ll have highly automated computer controlled machines with a small number of humans to test the parts and make sure they’re operating properly. This vision is more plausible — even likely — but while it promises continued employment for the engineers who make the robots, it certainly doesn’t solve any problems in the labor market.
But just as small business has long been the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, one wonders whether or not small manufacturing, driven by “professional Makers,” could be the foundation for the resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. Read more…
RFP-EZ is a small step towards making it easier for new businesses to sell to government.
A few years ago, when I was doing the research that led to my work in open government, I had a conversation with Aneesh Chopra, later the first Federal CTO but at the time, the Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia. I remember him telling me about the frustration of being in government, knowing that you could go to someone down the street to build a website in a week, but still having to put the job through procurement, a process taking nine months and resulting in a website costing ten times or more what it could have cost if he’d just been able to hire someone on the open market.
Much of the difficulty stems from stringent legal regulations that make it difficult for companies to compete and do business with government. (Like so many government regulations, these rules were designed with good intentions after scandals involving government officials steering contracts to their friends, but need to be simplified and updated for current circumstances.) The regulations are so complex that often, the people who do business with the federal government are more specialized in understanding that regulation than they are in the technology they’re providing. As a result, there are specialized intermediaries whose sole business is bidding on government jobs, and then subcontracting them to people who can actually do the work.
The problem has been compounded by the fact that many things that were once hard and expensive are now easy and cheap. But government rules make it hard to adopt cutting edge technology.
That’s why I’m excited to see the Small Business Administration launch RFP-EZ as part of the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program. It’s a small step towards getting the door open — towards making it easier for new businesses to sell to government. RFP-EZ simplifies both the process for small companies to bid on government jobs and the process for government officials to post their requests. Hopefully it will increase government’s access to technology, increase competition in the federal space, and lower prices. Read more…
If we're going to build useful applications on top of the industrial Internet, we must ensure the components interoperate.
One of the most interesting points made in GE’s “Unleashing the Industrial Internet” event was GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s statement that only 10% of the value of Internet-enabled products is in the connectivity layer; the remaining 90% is in the applications that are built on top of that layer. These applications enable decision support, the optimization of large scale systems (systems “above the level of a single device,” to use Tim O’Reilly’s phrase), and empower consumers.
Given the jet engine that was sitting on stage, it’s worth seeing how far these ideas can be pushed. Optimizing a jet engine is no small deal; Immelt said that the engine gained an extra 5-10% efficiency through software, and that adds up to real money. The next stage is optimizing the entire aircraft; that’s certainly something GE and its business partners are looking into. But we can push even harder: optimize the entire airport (don’t you hate it when you’re stuck on a jet waiting for one of those trucks to push you back from the gate?). Optimize the entire air traffic system across the worldwide network of airports. This is where we’ll find the real gains in productivity and efficiency.
So it’s worth asking about the preconditions for those kinds of gains. It’s not computational power; when you come right down to it, there aren’t that many airports, aren’t that many flights in the air at one time. There are something like 10,000 flights in the air at one time, worldwide; and in these days of big data, and big distributed systems, that’s not a terribly large number. It’s not our ability to write software; there would certainly be some tough problems to solve, but certainly nothing as difficult as, say, searching the entire web and returning results in under a second. Read more…
We're working with GE to explore the coming internet of very big things.
Consumer networks have revolutionized the way companies understand and reach their customers, making possible intricate measurement and accurate prediction at every step of every transaction. The same revolution is underway in our infrastructure, where new generations of sensor-laden power plants, cars and medical devices will generate vast quantities of data that could bring about improvements in quality, reliability and cost. Big machines will enter the modern era of big data, where they’ll be subject to constant analysis and optimization.
We’ve teamed up with General Electric to explore the industrial Internet and convene a series of conversations that we hope will accelerate its development. GE’s strong presence in many industries has given it a great deal of insight into the ways that industrial data might be gathered, distributed and linked together.
Linking together big smart devices into a true industrial Internet presents enormous challenges: standards need to be developed with the full engagement of the technology industry. Software innovators will need to develop tools that can handle vast quantities of sensor data under tight security constraints, sharing information that can improve the performance of systems that have many operators — without leaking anything important to malicious groups.
Launching the industrial Internet will require big investment on the part of those who will operate each of its nodes, so in addition to looking at the concept’s technical aspects we’ll also explore its promise as a business revolution in ways that are both practical and already in use (like remote operation of mining equipment) and promising but largely conceptual (like mobile health and big data in diagnostics).
GE won’t be the only voice in this conversation: other companies have developed their own visions for the industrial Internet and we’ll be exploring those as well, looking for commonalities and engaging as many voices as we can from our neutral place in the technology industry.
The promise of the industrial Internet is that it will bring intelligence to industries that are hugely capital-intensive and create broad value that all of the industrial Internet’s participants will share. We’ll look for stories that illustrate that future.
Is the unemployment problem about a lack of qualified applicants in the workforce?
At the second RailsConf, David Heinemeier Hansson told the audience about a recruiter trying to hire with “5 years of experience with Ruby on Rails.” DHH told him “Sorry; I’ve only got 4 years.” We all laughed (I don’t think there’s anyone in the technical world who hasn’t dealt with a clueless recruiter), but little did we know this was the shape of things to come.
Last week, a startup in a relatively specialized area advertised a new engineering position for which they expected job candidates to have used their API. That raised a few eyebrows, not the least because it’s a sad commentary on the current jobs situation.
On one hand, we have high unemployment. But on the other hand, at least in the computing industry, there’s no shortage of jobs. I know many companies that are hiring, and all of them are saying they can’t find the people they want. I’m only familiar with the computer industry, which is often out of synch with the rest of the economy. Certainly, in Silicon Valley where you can’t throw a stone without hitting a newly-funded startup, we’d expect a chronic shortage of software developers. But a quick Google search will show you that the complaint is widespread: trucking, nursing, manufacturing, teaching, you’ll see the “lack of qualified applicants” complaint everywhere you look.
Is the problem that there are no qualified people? Or is the problem with the qualifications themselves?
Hard truths about our values, the economy and the outlook for the future.
Mark Sigal says we're entering a period where the promise of a better tomorrow is no longer a generational expectation and our sense of a (mostly) fair and balanced system is being drowned by an elite class.