Robert Plant

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27th
January

3D Printing – Industry and Product Disruptor or Enabler?

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Robert Plant, Ph.D

3D printing, or additive printing to give it is alternative name, is the layering of materials such that it creates an overall physical structure. While the basic technology based on thermoplastics is becoming commonly available at a price point that allows schools and businesses to experiment with it, the technology itself is rapidly evolving.

One dimension of change is the material basis of the printed subject. Printing takes place on a variety of media including plastic films, ceramics and metal alloys. To produce alloys such as stainless steel with bronze small droplets of glue are dropped onto layers of stainless steel powder; the powered model then undergoes an infusion process where the glue is replaced by bronze thus creating the compound metal; this material can be used in the creation of objects such as turbine impellers. Other major breakthrough materials technologies include those used in 3D bioprinting. Researchers in tissue engineering utilizing polymers such as Poly(ethylene glycol)-diacrylate (PEGDA) to create products such as invertebrate disks, currently in trials on rats.

The second dimension of change is that of printing accuracy; just as with silicon computer chip fabrication where the number of transistors on a silicon wafer follows Moore’s law, 3D printing is undergoing a similar transformation in terms of the granularity of the printing process; for stainless steel additive printing accuracy rates are +/- 1% for print layers of 0.1mm are now standard; however research into nanoscale 3D printing is underway and objects with widths as small as 10nm have been produced, using metallic physical vapor deposit methods; by researchers looking at placing even more transistors on a computer chip.

These advances have significant implications in the production of a wide range of objects currently produced using standard methods. More importantly the 3D approach frees up designers from existing production methodology constraints allowing them to be highly creative. This combination of design and execution thus has the potential for a significant paradigm shift in product creation.

For example, a recent innovation is the production of ‘lightpaper,’ a product that sandwiches a combination of ink and miniature LEDs on a layer of conductive material which allows the LEDs to light up when power is applied. This product is typical of the revolutionary and disruptive transformation that 3D technologies can have upon an industry. The company has literally reinvented the light bulb! While the product, scheduled to come to market in 2015, may not replace all the worlds’ light bulbs overnight, the potential disruption to traditional manufacturers of lighting is imminent and requires a response from that sector in order for them not to get rapidly disrupted.

The advancement of 3D printing technology is occurring at many levels. In the low tech 3D printing sector, projects such as the creation, in 2014, of full sized houses in eastern China by WinSun company, has the potential to disrupt the traditional housing industry. The company’s giant printers use cement and construction waste to create environmentally friendly and cost effective housing. While the advanced technology sector of 3D printing also has the potential to disrupt and transform areas such as healthcare. For example, Chinese companies have created cutting edge 3D technologies in the field of tissue engineering. Regenovo Biotechnology Co in conjunction with Hangzhou Dianzi University has created the first 3D printer to print multiple tissue samples including liver units and human ear cartilage. While the research is still experimental researchers are expecting fully functioning organs to be available within a decade.

However, as these technologies advance there are several factors that need to be overcome in order for their deployment to be successful. These include fundamental support of standards and protocols for successful data sharing between researchers; platform developers, and manufactures to occur. This will allow systems to be interoperable and the products reproducible anywhere with exactly the same specifications. This is vital for quality and safety concerns, not only in the production of medical tissue products but for any product, from aircraft parts to human dwellings. Additionally, while patents and intellectual property need to be secured by the innovators the processes and techniques that result in a product need to be openly accessible for that product to be acceptable. For example, implanting a human organ created through a 3D print process will require that those processes be thoroughly documented to internationally accepted standards in order for verified and achieve acceptance by the recipient.

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6th
July

Five Steps to Fixing Bad Apps

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Have you ever asked yourself why your company’s smartphone app doesn’t lead the pack?

In other words, what are Citibank, American Airlines, Amazon, UPS, and Volvo doing to create engaging apps that bind the user to the company, build brand equity, and provide high exit barriers for customers (and equally high entry barriers for competitors)? Sure, those are huge corporations with vast resources, but in the world of app making, big money isn’t much of an asset. What puts those companies ahead is their effective use of both art and science in app development.

First, the teams behind winning apps tend to be composed of the organizations’ best techno-marketing talent, people with deep understanding of social media. Second, they take a few basic ingredients — brand, marketing, technology, and service — and combine them in just the right ways over the course of five stages. In each stage, they ask themselves what gaps need to be filled. Then they work hard to fill them.

Stage 1: Is there a recognition gap? An app should establish a strong association with its parent brand. That means the app’s name, color scheme, and logo should build on the parent’s. Take a look at how Citi and Bank of America reinforce their apps’ authenticity through the use of logo colors. At the same time, the apps reinforce the brands by giving users connectivity with other assets and services. Features such as Bank of America’s SafePass for especially sensitive transactions further strengthen the brands.

Stage 2: Is there a brand-personalization gap? Because an app’s appeal is related to its ability to solve users’ problems, development teams must constantly work to identify, understand, and prioritize customers’ challenges, which of course are in constant flux. Leaders in this space include American Airlines and American Express. AA’s app has an efficient user interface that expedites execution of key functions for the traveler, especially the frequent flyer. Each electronic boarding pass uses four QR codes, increasing the probability of a first-time hit by the scanner. There are features that allow users to visualize seat selections and assign names to flights, and the site incorporates a Sudoku game at the top-level menu to keep users amused, and bonded to the site, while they wait for data such as gate assignments.

Stage 3: Is there a data gap? In order to feel comfortable using an app, consumers have to trust that the data they’re getting is valid and correct and the interface is secure. Companies must present and explain a clear, consistent, uniform data-trust policy for encryption, logins, timeouts, and cloud resources across all customer-facing systems. Leaders in this space include Amazon, PayPal, and of course Apple. The leading companies not only utilize the best industry security practices, they are innovators, anticipating customer’s concerns rather than waiting for other companies to notice problems and offer solutions. Think of Amazon’s One Click payment system and PayPal’s forthcoming encrypted smart-phone card-reader attachment.

Stage 4: Is there a decision gap? Successful corporate apps such as American Airlines’ provide consumers with the ability to undertake the functions associated with a task, such as boarding a flight, in a manner that conforms with and even improves the processes customers associate with that function and the company providing it. American’s customers would be left in a state of confusion if, for example, the company started requiring record-locator codes for flights or didn’t allow seat selection until 24 hours before a flight, as is the case with Virgin Atlantic’s app. Misalignment between the in-person kiosk or counter experience and the app would generate uncertainty about the outcome at every decision point, with significant consequences. Customers would lose confidence that their decisions were being executed, ultimately leading to defections and negative word-of-mouth.

Stage 5: Is there a reinforcement gap? App loyalty is strongly related to repeated use, acceptance of new features, and a highly effective interaction. Brand reinforcement also comes from users’ recognition of the app as a valued and consistent extension of the parent brand. Leaders include Volvo, which developed a Volvo Sailing app for the UK market and a Volvo Ocean Race Game app to run parallel to the global Ocean Race. Apps of this type incrementally build loyalty and reinforce the brand.

Developing apps through this method is analogous to reducing a sauce — it intensifies the flavor, resulting in a richer customer experience and heightened satisfaction. If you try to create an app by simply having the marketing people hand off their specifications to the tech team, without going through the five-stage development process, you’ll end up with an app that’s bland, weak, and unappealing.

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1st
November

Forget Narco-Trafficking, Info-Trafficking is more profitable, and it is legal, but is it ethical?

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Privacy: There is no App for that

In the movie “Enemy of the state,”John Voight, an NSA official delivers the chilling line, regarding suspect Will Smith, “let’s get into his life” and though satellite technologies, communications monitoring, and active tracking devices they do just that. This technological ability was once the province of the intelligence services but it is now available to all businesses thanks to the consumer’s love of the Smartphone and their Apps.

The basis for this change is the ability of organizations such as GSMA, an association of more than 800 mobile operators worldwide, and whose members represent more than 5 Billion GSM and 2GSM connections; http://www.gsmworld.com/about-us/index.htm  to generate what is known as “census level data.” This ultra low level data is obtained from the users online activities through their Smartphone. The data is then processed, in which it is augmented with demographic data collected “with the consent of a representative sample of mobile internet users” becoming ‘irreversibly’ anonymised. It is then sold in the B2B marketplace. This level of detail is highly valuable as it enables market-level analysis of site visitation and engagement metrics, such as page views, times spent on specific sites, device types and features. http://www.gsmworld.com/newsroom/press-releases/2010/4614.htm

Ironically, Voight’s NSA character also states, “Privacy’s been dead for years because we can’t risk it, the only privacy that’s left is the inside of your head.” This too may also be a truth a little too close for comfort. However, luckily for businesses most consumers do not realize how far the technology has moved in a relatively short period. As such, now would be a good time for executives to consider how they are going to manage their App-centric consumer-privacy policy in advance of the potential pushback.

As a starting point, three recommendations can be made:

  1. Apply the rules of the most regulated market you serve to your global operations.

The principals applicable to good corporate social responsibility can also be applied to data. Just as companies are rebuked for using manufacturing practices in an overseas facility that would be considered illegal or unethical at home, companies need to adhere to ethical, global data privacy standards.

The GSMA-comScore Mobile Media Metrics product http://www.comscore.com/Products_Services/Product_Index/Mobile_Metrix was developed and deployed with co-operation from five mobile operators in the UK. As such it is subject to the country’s strict data protection legislation http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/29/contents. The UK laws work to protect the individual and this would lead developers to aggregating their data. However, in countries, such as the United States, that lacks such legislation the temptation to focus on the individual’s data, rather than the aggregate is very tempting.

Executives at this point in App development need to reflect on the consequences of their data collection actions very carefully and create customer centric policies. They should note that for most Apps their consumer’s barriers to exit are low, and handset lifecycles short allowing a potential for consumer defection to another App and platform. For example, to favor a mobile device that protects the consumer by changing or modifies data collection, this could be done by sending out high volume random App data requests not affiliated to the user’s real actions and thus hiding the true requests in amongst the chatter.

  1. Do not be opaque in your communications to the consumer.

The vast majority of consumers are not lawyers, and they do not read the legalize that comes with their computer contacts. For example, the Apple “Terms and Conditions” document is 34 pages long and contains 17,462 words.  http://www.apple.com/legal/itunes/us/terms.html#GIFTS While customers may click first and ask questions later, knowledge of this behavior should not be used as an excuse to have them sign off on open data access and the subsequent exploitation of that data for commercial benefit with third parties. Following our first recommendation, consumers in countries with strong data protection policies assume that their well being  has a basis in law, while those in the countries with less legal oversight should be provided with frequent and ample provision to understand a company’s data acquisition and use policies. This leads to our third recommendation, enabling the consumer to act upon their knowledge of a company’s policy.

  1. In opt-out theaters -  make it easy.

Within theaters of operation, such as the EU, the data protection policies favor the default to be that customer data is not collected, and that customers have to ‘opt-in’ for that to happen. In other theaters, including the United States, the default is that consumer data is collected or you can not have the service. To “opt out” is often extremely difficult. As such few people avail themselves of the mechanisms to do so.

For example, Apple collects data on their customers  App usage, which App they have downloaded, how long they use an App, and when an App is deleted. Their Privacy Policy runs to 6 pages (2,417 words) http://www.apple.com/privacy/  and informs US-based customers that Apple may need to collect information including social security numbers, something anathema to UK users. As such it fails to meet our first recommendation for global equality. Apple does however provide a mechanism for opting out of data collection http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4228 ( http://oo.apple.com) but they don’t reveal how many customers have availed themselves of this facility, failing criteria two, nor does this action block the collection of App data by mobile operators, or network routing telcos such as Neustar Inc.

Customers personal data should be treated with respect, and data opt out provision should be made easier, for example, every time a customer pays a bill or there is a policy change  they could be asked to reaffirm their willingness to opt in, preferably in terms less than 34 pages in length. Alternatively, in countries with lax legislation, the customer could be financially compensated for providing their data, a potential win-win compromise solution.

The current situation reminds me of the part in Enemy of the State where Hackman tells Will Smith “You have something they want,” to which he replied, “I don’t have anything” Hackman retorts “Maybe you do and you just don’t know it.” The Smartphone consumer is about to understand that they have something very valuable that business want, and that are being watched, it is just that they just don’t know quite how much yet.

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12th
October

When Complex Systems Fail

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Robert Plant & Neil F. Johnson 

 “Failure is not an Option.”

Gene Kranz, Lead Flight Director Apollo 13

The Deepwater Horizon, the Challenger space shuttle, the power outage that affected the Northeastern states of the USA in 2003, Apollo13 and the Air France flight 477 are all examples of disasters that share a common basis; they were complex systems, which, in the terminology of complexity theory, became disordered, or more simply put, failed.

In our work with organizations we are frequently asked about complex systems and risk management. In our response we first define for executives what complexity science is – the study of the phenomenon, which emerge from a collection of interacting objects. These objects can be collections of companies, managers, or customers, typically competing for a limited resource. For example, a group of users vying for bandwidth within a network with limited capacity is a complex system. We point out that this system could, under certain conditions such as in periods of extremely high bandwidth demand or when a certain number of routers fail cause a network disruption to occur. Exactly such an incident occurred at the healthcare provider CareGroup forcing the medical staff to revert to manual procedures in order to keep the facility operational. Alternatively, the resource may be stocks. In May 2010, the market was placed under extreme stress when a trader mistyped the size of a sell order for P&G stock. The result of this input was a global interaction between automated program trading platforms leading to a 600 point drop for the Dow in seven minutes.

In order for organizations to identify and understand their exposure to complex systems executives must understand their basic composition. Typically most complex systems have the following ingredients:

First, the system itself contains a collection of many interacting objects. These can for example be stock traders and buy/sell orders in a financial system. Alternatively they could be computer or human generated inputs into a power plant’s control system.

Second the system has a feedback mechanism. In the case of financial markets these include institutional mechanisms such as the Securities and Exchange Commission in the USA and the Financial Services Authority in the UK. For power generation systems, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission actively performs operational data and human performance assessments around their system’s objects – the people, the technology, and other resources as a part of its State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analysis (SOARCA) program, refining their performance parameters in the next cycle of events, creating an adaptive operational system.

Third, the system must be ‘open’ rather than closed to influence by external events. As such, monitoring disorderly events and situations occurring at other companies with similar environments and complex systems is a necessary and integral part of the feedback cycle.

Having helped executives to define the complex system within which the company’s operations are performed, the next step is to clarify their behavioral properties.

First, executives need to be aware that the resulting systems often appear to be “alive.” This is because the systems have evolved in highly non-trivial and often complicated ways, driven by an ecology of agents who interact and adapt under the influence of feedback. For example, financial analysts often talk as though the stock market were a living, breathing object, assigning it words such as pessimistic or bearish, and confident or bullish.

Second, executives need to understand these systems often exhibit “emergent phenomena,” that is systems in which, even with perfect knowledge of the constituent parts, provide no predictive information of future events. Emergent phenomena are events, which are generally surprising as they cannot be predicted based on knowledge of the properties of the individual objects. The emergent behavior is a direct consequence of individual objects acting within a systems context, and often extreme results can occur. This was the case with the “O” ring failure on the Challenger.

This fundamentally means that anything can happen and, if you wait long enough, generally will. For example, all stock and property markets will eventually show some kind of crash. Such phenomena are generally unexpected in terms of when they will arise and the study of an individual element of the system, say the rating of an individual bond by a rating agency, would not provide observers with predictive powers over the interaction of a bond portfolio as a whole.

As such, complex systems should be regarded as being more than the sum of their parts. This interaction often surprises executives as emergent phenomena can manifest in the absence of any sort of central controller or “invisible hand,” hence the difficulty in predicting such events and creating advanced disaster planning.

Finally, we stress to executives not to observe emergent phenomena and then be lulled into a false sense of security as the phenomena dissipate by themselves. Complex systems show a complicated mix of phenomena both ordered and emergent. Just as traffic jams can appear to drivers to have occurred for seemingly no reason, so do problems in industrial systems, this is due to the very nature of the complex interactions upon which the system is based. Executives need to be aware that this dissipation does not however mean that the behavior will not return potentially in another form.

Having gained clarity in terms of what a complex system is executives and managers then need to understand and manage the risks associated with their systems.

Our research in financial market complexity[1] indicates that the major misunderstanding that companies make is to assign the risk of failure to a particular process or object in isolation. Typically, this is usually done at periods of tranquility, when things are going well. However, as we have shown, complex systems are more than the sum of the parts and that failure can occur from a variety of stress combinations. Executives should therefore assess risks across a portfolio of systems interactions. This is important as risks in complex systems combine in non-linear ways which not following a normal distribution. This can lead to sudden and extreme failures, in situations, which may occur infrequently as failure in one dimension spills over and couple with failures in other modules. This can be surprising for companies as these events are considered atypical, issues for which little if any planning has been undertaken.

We therefore advise executives to first, look back at prior crisis and problematic situations for insights into the behavioral characteristics of their systems. We emphasis that that preparation for storms should not be done in calm weather, during and directly after stressful events is a more productive time for future planning.

Second, we stress that companies develop portfolios of risk management solutions, which we term an adaptive context-dependent response strategy, hedging the risk of the risk, rather than a single plan of action for a singular event scenario. Emergent events with complex systems can not usually be solved by blindly applying a risk model developed under ‘normal’ operating conditions.

Finally, invest in corporate response training that forces participants to be creative, adaptive, and innovative. This style of training is more akin to the philosophy of the training given to Special Forces such as the SAS and the Navy SEALS in preparing for the unexpected within a climate of change and resource constraints rather than the basic drill based training for regular forces.

Perhaps incidents such as BP’s will lead others to understand that their operating environment is not just a set of individual components or assets but rather a complex interconnected environment which needs systemic consideration in order to prevent failures in the future and that now is the time to put those plans into place.



[1] Financial market Complexity: What physics can tell us about market behavior. Johnson, N.F., Jefferies, Pak, M.H, Oxford Press 2003

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