Monday, 4 August 2014

Cheap, reliable, now

Cheap, reliable, now. You want all 3 things from a new technology. Choose 2.



Reliable and now: cutting edge technology

Money is no object when prestige or national security is at stake. Prestige projects are often bespoke one-off items. Several cutting edge technologies may be incorporated: prototypes within prototypes. Staying one step ahead of the competition creates the need for the technology.
Technology Readiness Levels: the TRLs were designed to describe technology development in such an environment: NASA.
Funding: Governments or brand conscious multi-nationals with deep pockets.
Public acceptance: prestige generates national or team-sport pride; drives innovation.
Examples: Formula one, space programs, hi-tech weaponry.

Cheap and now: appropriate technology

Machinery is maintained and operated by non-expert owners. They are either enthusiasts pursuing a hobby, or do not have access to competing technology. Although the capital cost is low, the technology does not offer good value for money (particularly as it spends half the time awaiting repair). Due to the small capital cost and owner maintenance, individual devices are small. Using off-the-shelf components, the technology is often being beta-tested by customers.
Technology Readiness Levels: The TRLs do not accurately describe the development path.
Funding: Start-ups, amateur enthusiasts, university research and consumer revenue.
Public acceptance: Benefits and drawbacks are experienced by the same person; there is a sense of ownership and relationship.
Examples: Self assembled motorised go carts, first Danish wind turbines built from tractor parts; solar cookers.

Cheap and reliable: mature technology

This point is reached by learning from mistakes. Failures teach us about the underlying science and implementation details.  To get to this point it is necessary to fund the early development. To break into a mature market, a new technology needs to train up as one of the two other options: cutting-edge or appropriate technology. Gradually costs are driven down by mass production, commercial competition, and sophisticated control algorithms. Once mature, the technology looks simple on the outside, but is complicated on the inside. Design convergence hints at optimization. The size of the technology is scaled to the economic optimum.
Technology Readiness Levels: The TRLs do not accurately describe the development path.
Funding: In the early days, the start-up is funded as a cutting-edge or appropriate technology. Growing consumer revenue encourages big business acquisition of start-ups.
Public acceptance: Slow evolution results in acceptance due to familiarity. The technology is ubiquitous, effective and part of the background.
Examples: Family cars, mega-watt scale wind in Denmark.

Cheap and reliable and now: what we want from wave energy 

Technology Readiness Levels: We are assuming that after reaching TRL 9 (prototype array) wave energy will be 1) megawatt scale and 2) sufficiently low risk and profitable (given non-embarrassing levels of government support) to attract funding from the companies who can afford to fund megawatt scale development.
Funding: Venture capitalists will accept the high risk of an unproven concept, but as they have small budgets and time lines, early development will cut corners and rush sea trails. There will not be the opportunity to understand the science behind the process or improve reliability.
Public acceptance: The supply chain will loose interest if there are repeated over-optimistic capacity projections, and if they are blamed for failures. The insurance industry and certification societies will loose patience if rushed sea trials cause expensive damage. Investors and customers will loose confidence if readiness levels are over-stated. We will loose the support of the public if we do not consult them in planning applications and do not promptly recover damaged equipment.
Examples: Several companies have sea-trailed a prototype, suffered technical problems leading to irreparable damage, and have lost funding as a result.

Image credit:
Camilla, retired NASA mascot:

1 comment:

  1. Discussion of the topic covered here can be found at: