Eight Ways IBM Develops a View of the Potential Futures

Last week I presented at the 47th meeting of the Technology Market Analysis Group.  The theme for the meeting last week was “Trend Spotting and Forecasting Market Disruptions”, a theme that was right up my alley.   I’ll blog more about TMAG and the meeting in the coming days. 

How IBM Develops Views of the Potential Futures - Aug2011The inspiration for my presentation came from a white paper “100 years of foresight: The importance of long-term thinking at IBM” written by my IBM colleague David Jarvis, Senior Consultant of the IBM Center for Applied Insights team.

This was a very timely topic as this past June IBM celebrated its 100th birthday…a major milestone in the company's history.  It’s important to pause and reflect how a company like IBM continues to survive and even thrive in an industry that experiences one disruptive trend after another.  The answer lies in a series of initiatives designed to help the company understand and prepare for the potential futures that lie ahead.  

During the presentation, I provided an overview of eight examples of ways in which IBM approaches the discipline of strategic foresight.  In each of the eight initiatives collaboration plays a big part in planning for the future.   If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll see I’ve also embedded the presentation which I have loaded to HorizonWatching on Slideshare.

Eight IBM Foresight Initiatives

1.Global Technology Outlook (GTO).  The GTO is developed annually by IBM Research and identifies disruptive societal, technical and economic trends that might impact IBM and its clients.  The GTO is used to drive technical initiatives in IBM Research and to jointly engage with IBM in formulating these initiatives.  For more information, check out the 2011 GTO report.  A side benefit of the all the work that goes into the GTO is the annual list of Five in Five…which provides a list of five technologies that may have a disruptive impact on our lives in five years.

2.Academy of Technology. The IBM Academy of Technology is a society of IBM technical leaders across all IBM Business Units.  The academy’s mission is to advance the understanding of key emerging technical areas.  Groups of technical leaders voluntarily study, organize, synthesize and advance technical dialogue and innovation across business lines on important emerging technical topics.

3.First of a Kind (FOAK). The First-of-a-Kind (FOAK) Program encourages collaboration of early adopter companies with IBM Research and Sales.  The effort pushes early thought leadership and experiences with new technologies and results in the piloting of experimental solutions and working prototypes.  For more on FOAK see http://www.research.ibm.com/FOAK/index.shtml

4.Global Innovation Outlook (GIO).  The Global Innovation Outlook focuses more on broad issues impacting all types of organizations. This is an open, collaborative, multi-disciplinary process with external business leaders, academics, researchers and policymakers.  The focus on tackling broad and challenging topics – spanning geographies, generations, industries and interests.  Access past GIO reports via http://www.ibm.com/ibm/gio/us/en/index.html

5.InnovationJam. InnovationJams (https://www.collaborationjam.com) are online collaborative discussions and brainstorming sessions for focused audiences ranging in size from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands.  The brainstorming sessions are enhanced by real-time text analysis and data mining software that highlights hot discussions and possible solutions.  An example was the HabitJam.

6.Institute for Business Value.  The IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) is global team of 50+ consultants who conduct research and analysis across multiple industries and functional disciplines. IBV consultants author thought leadership papers, like “Future Agendas” and “C-Suite Studies” that provides an original, research-based point of view told from a client’s business perspective.  

7.Market Development & Insights.  IBM’s Market Develop & Insights is a global team of market research analysts and consultants that research topics of importance to IBM business leaders and strategists.   The team accelerates the understanding of new or emerging markets, and acts as a catalyst for future growth.  The team provides foresight from a marketing perspective, including market definition, opportunity analysis, market drivers/inhibitors, potential segmentation, and competitive intelligence.

8.HorizonWatch Community.  This is a cross-IBM community of 1900+ IBM employees from all types of functions, divisions and geographies that I have led since it’s creation in 2001.  The mission is to improve our collective ability to sense future disruptive technologies, business issues, trends and opportunities.  The community meets via monthly conference calls on an emerging topic, which are led by a subject matter expert.  In between calls, the community collaborates via an online community platform that allows the members to share and brainstorm ideas about how the future will play out.

A Primer on 3-D Printing: An Emerging Technology You Should Know About

A few days ago, the first 3-d printed airplane flew for the first time.  See the LA Times article “World’s first 3-D printed airplane takes to the skies”.

Although 3D printing has been around for a number of decades, the quality has increased dramatically in recent years and the prices are just beginning to drop, making it much more affordable for small and medium businesses.  And if you really want to explore 3D printing, they are even getting cheap enough for consumers to own.

The reality is 3D printing is a very cost-effective way to have an in-house rapid prototyping capability.  For a relatively modest investment, design engineers can use a 3D printer to catch design flaws earlier in the process lowering costs and shortening design cycles.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing involves having the computer sending the coordinates for a 3D object to an output device (a 3D Printer) that employs the same ink-jet printer principle that is used to print on paper.  However, in this case the ‘printer’ deposits successive layers of material to build up a full-scale 3D model.   The material used can be powder, plastics, resins or even metals.

In the case of powder, the printer is actually delivering ultra-thin layers of powder onto a surface, one on top of another, until it produces a 3D model.  With each successive run of the ‘printer head’, the powder that is deposited is then given a spray of a binding liquid that' helps to harden the powder and help form a solid object.

The end-result of this process might be a model which designers can use to verify a product’s design qualities before full-scale manufacturing begins, or it might be an end-use specialty product ranging from a component in a complex aircraft engine to a consumer medical  or dental implant.

The big benefits of 3D printing is it’s low cost and speed.  The printers can generally produce models in as little as one-tenth the time it takes other types of machines.  3-D Printer-produced models are throwaway models that allow you to see things you would not be able to see as well on a computer with a CAD system.  The beauty of this approach is people can hold the proposed design, study it, and get a good feel for its shape.

Video Introduction to 3D-Printing

The video below (about 4 minutes) provides an introduction to 3-D printing.

 

 

Implications for Traditional Manufacturing

It is doubtful that this new generation of 3D printers can replace traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding, machined or milled parts and manufacturing line assembly.  However I do believe that small and medium specialty manufactures should consider implementing 3D printing processes for individual steps or subsystems in a traditional line manufacturing process.  It is very possible that these new low cost printers would help reduce overall manufacturing costs.

Implications for Consumers

Many people in the 3-d printing industry fully believe every household will have a device that’s capable of printing any solid object, and even basic mechanical objects.  Imagine pressing the “bowl” or “cup” button on the 3D printer in the kitchen, followed by the “fork” or “spoon” button. It would even work for larger objects like cutting boards and colanders and laundry baskets — and it would be easy enough to provide fairly extensive customization, too: a stripy cup, with colors of your choosing, a narrower fork, a bowl that is perfectly tapered to support and grip an unwieldy watermelon, and so on.

Implications for Healthcare

Experts also see a bright future for 3D printing in the medical industry.  3D printing technology is currently being studied by biotechnology firms and academia for possible use in tissue engineering applications where organs and body parts are built using inkjet techniques. Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures.  Future applications include Organ printing, bio-printing, computer-aided tissue engineering.  

Vendors

For those of you wanting to learn more about products and services out on the market, here are a few vendor sites to visit

  • Desktop Factory  Makes a very small and affordable printers that truly fit on top of a desk.
  • 3D Systems   Provides mid-range solutions that employ a technology that film transfers photopolymer to build 3-D objects
  • Z Corp  Is widely thought of as providing top of the line printers for an office environment
  • MakerBot, an entry level machine, has sold more than 4,000 so far.
  • Ultimaker, a new entrant into personal 3-d printing

For More Information