After the Internet bubble burst, people stopped thinking about the transforming powers of technology. And technology companies were forced to stop crowing about how they were set to change the world. Instead, they ate crow — and concentrated on staying alive.
But technology didn't stop evolving and maturing, no matter what the Nasdaq did. Imaginative researchers and engineers, by their nature, aren't very good at throttling back to a conservative idle.
So while shareholders nursed their battered portfolios and big companies chiseled away at their cost structures and employment rolls, these innovators kept working. They kept trying to develop technologies that would represent giant leaps forward, not just incremental baby steps.
We set off in search of those people who were bold enough to think that the world might at some point be ready to take a giant leap again and to believe that innovative technology can still put serious distance between a leader and the rest of the pack.
In such places as Mooresville, North Carolina; La Jolla, California; Hawthorne, New York; rural Connecticut; and Manhattan's SoHo district, we found companies that are developing or deploying technologies that could change the world. Each will have a different impact — from smart tags that will allow products to be tracked through the distribution network to bio-simulation software that is speeding the path of safer, more effective new drugs to pharmacy shelves. We sent back these five postcards from the edge.
The ThermoJet printer outside of Scott Campbell's office looks like a big Xerox machine, although at $49,000, it's a bit pricier. But instead of cranking out color prints, the ThermoJet produces 3-D wax models of car parts and body designs for the Penske Racing NASCAR team, headquartered in Mooresville, North Carolina.
Penske is obsessed with technology that will help it leave competitors in the dust. (The team has notched more than 45 wins in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.) And Campbell says that 3-D printing, which allows the team to turbo-charge its design process, is just such a technology.
"It used to be a long process to sculpt things by hand," says Campbell, a senior engineer for the Penske team. "Now we design things on the fly and make lots of incremental changes, because we can just print them out and see how they look."
Three-D printing is changing the world of product design. These printers typically shape objects by laying down materials, such as wax or plaster, one layer upon the other. A small model can take as little as an hour to create, and some printers can create objects in full color. Three-D printing is being used to design everything from children's strollers at Graco to running shoes at New Balance and Reebok, allowing designers and engineers to show their work earlier in the process, make changes with less fuss, and get new products to market faster.
The Penske team's printer, made by 3D Systems, a publicly traded California company, churns out models of such things as suspension components and brake caliper mounts, as well as complete car bodies. Once a part has been printed and approved, the model can be sent to a foundry to be cast in steel or titanium and eventually installed on one of Penske's two race cars. (Most NASCAR vehicles are entirely custom-built.) Models from the 3-D printer can even be tested in a wind tunnel — something that Toyota has done with parts such as side-view mirrors for its production vehicles.
As 3-D printers drop in cost — Z Corp., an MIT spin-off, offers a low-end printer for $29,900 — they could even start showing up in places like Kinko's, allowing customers to do not just desktop publishing of documents, but desktop publishing of objects.
Already, the Penske team appreciates the advantage of being able to turn out prototypes — and make changes — quickly and cheaply. (A small model of a car costs about $160.) "We're looking for every performance edge we can find with our design and manufacturing techniques," Campbell says. "We don't show up at a race to lose."
Rather than fall victim to simple viruses, the Linux servers in Dr. Richard Ho's labs are supposed to contract more serious diseases.
Several of the computers at the Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical R&D facility in La Jolla, California, suffer from Type II diabetes. Ho, the head of medical informatics at the facility, expects that other servers will eventually come down with debilitating diseases of their own.
"When you're trying to develop a new drug, there's a lot of guesswork involved," Ho says. "You'd work on a new drug candidate in the lab, and eventually test it on animals, and then test it on humans, but you might not have a good idea of what the drug would do at any of those stages."
That's where Ho's sick servers come in. By creating mathematical models of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, asthma, or arthritis in a computer, researchers can run virtual tests of their new drug candidates — much in the way that an aeronautical engineer uses a computer simulation to imagine how an airplane design will perform once it's built. Often called "biosimulation," the approach compiles everything that is known about a given disease — even down to the activity that takes place inside a single cell. And the computer models can be updated as scientists learn more about how the diseases work.
Researchers can anticipate bad reactions before they give a drug to animals or humans, and they can run many more tests on a computer than they could run in the real world. Ideally, biosimulation will help Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies focus their efforts on the drug prospects that are most likely to succeed.
"Even by the time a drug candidate gets to Phase III clinical trials — the last stage before it reaches the market — the failure rate still approaches 50%," says James Karis, the CEO of Entelos, the Foster City, California, company that supplies biosimulation technology to Johnson & Johnson. "That's after eight or so years of research. Those failures are very expensive." (Today, the standard figure for bringing a drug to market is between $800 million and $1 billion.) Simulation software will make those failures less painful and help pharmaceutical companies find useful drugs sooner.
Ho's team used biosimulation to reduce the amount of time and the number of patients required for the first phase of clinical trials of a new, as-yet-unannounced drug for Type II diabetes. (Ho estimates that the software, in its first outing, saved between six and eight weeks in trials.) Using sick computers as a stand-in for sick humans is still a new idea that will have to prove its value by contributing to the development of important new drugs. But eventually, Ho predicts, "this will become commonplace. It's a tool we never had before."
Nagui Halim believes that there are few constants in the world of computing. Chips get faster and more powerful, storage gets cheaper, and communications bandwidth keeps increasing. But one thing doesn't change: Our computers are still horrible at coping with problems.
"People are excellent at handling changes in the environment, or in their own body," says Halim, the director of distributed computing at IBM's Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, New York. "If you have too much work, you know how to prioritize and do the work that matters most. If you're feeling sick, you might lie down for a while." But even the most sophisticated computers aren't self-aware enough to know how to handle stress, or react to their own health problems.
Halim is part of a group at IBM that's working on what the company has termed "autonomic computing": developing computers that are smart enough to configure themselves, balance intense workloads, and know how to predict and address problems before they happen. At IBM, the leader in the field, the annual research budget for autonomic computing approaches $500 million. And the quest to develop systems that take care of themselves isn't just an abstract research initiative: Its fruits have begun creeping into Big Blue's product line.
"We've already got storage management software that can tell you when a storage device will fail before that failure happens," says Alan Ganek, vice president of IBM's autonomic-computing initiative. "And we're selling database software that can recommend a configuration based on the hardware environment you're running it in. Most database administrators had previously done that by trial and error."
The long-term promise of self-aware computers and software is greater reliability with fewer human baby-sitters. Right now, Ganek says, IT staffs at large companies are swamped with the tasks involved in "managing, maintaining, upgrading, and the care and feeding of their systems. That work squeezes out any innovative projects that they'd like to be doing to establish a competitive advantage."
Imagine, Halim says, a system that is smart enough both to see that online orders are spiking as the holiday shopping season approaches and to temporarily commandeer a bit of extra processing power from the human-resources server so that it can handle the influx of orders. Personal computers might know when a software upgrade became available and install it themselves. But as Adam and Eve discovered, self-awareness and sin often go hand in hand. A key challenge for IBM will be imposing restraints on this smarter generation of computers, so that your PC doesn't go out and spend $100 upgrading to Windows 2005 without your permission.
Guests don't go to the glitzy Mohegan Sun casino and resort, in central Connecticut, to see the fuel-cell center that's housed in an old fire station on an access road. And they don't ooh and aah over the dozen hydrogen storage tanks on the fire station's roof.
But the fuel-cell center, which is designed to provide the casino with reliable, clean backup power, may be one of the most glamorous things going at Mohegan Sun. Eventually, on-site power generation and storage facilities like Mohegan Sun's could change the structure of the country's power grid. The concept is called "distributed generation" (or sometimes, "decentralized generation").
Today, the way that power is generated in the United States looks a lot like the old world of mainframe computers, says Chip Schroeder, CEO of Proton Energy, the Connecticut company installing the hydrogen system at Mohegan Sun. A few big, clunky plants are connected together in what's known as "the grid." In some ways, that system is efficient — it's the cheapest way that we know to produce and distribute electricity — but in other ways, it's terrible. Electricity is lost as it's transmitted over long distances. No one likes living next to a massive power plant. And the huge capital investments mean that old, expensive plants keep running long after cleaner, more efficient technology becomes available.
Schroeder says that the new power network will look a lot more like the Internet than the outmoded mainframe model. Smaller generating facilities — some using solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies and others using scaled-down gas-fired turbines — will be widely distributed and placed closer to where the power is actually being used. They will be more easily upgradeable. The power will be more reliable, because most outages are caused by distribution problems, like a downed line.
The installation at Mohegan Sun is one of only a few tentative steps toward this Internet-like power network. "But you need to prove that this can work before more people will adopt it," says Dan Reicher, a vice president at Northern Power, recently acquired by Proton. And other projects are popping up. Later this year, Northern Power will be starting a demonstration project in Vermont that will be the world's first "microgrid." This web of generating technologies will serve an industrial park and a few nearby residences, and even feed surplus power back to the main power grid. A similar microgrid is being built in downtown Detroit by DTE Energy, a subsidiary of Detroit Edison.
"It may take awhile, and we're probably biased," says Schroeder, "but we think this is the future."
The glass door of the dressing room at Prada's Epicenter store in SoHo slides shut.
I hang a $450 gray patterned shirt on a rack inside, and suddenly, a color flat-screen display on the wall lights up. The dressing room has "recognized" the item I've brought in, then suggests other sizes and materials that it comes in and even shows a picture of a much-better-looking-than-me model wearing the shirt in a Prada fashion show.
Attached to the shirt, along with the stratospheric price tag, is a piece of clear plastic the size of a business card. Embedded in the plastic is a coil of bronze microchip circuitry, which contains information about the shirt and conveys it to a reader built into the dressing room. This is a smart tag (or RFID tag, for radio-frequency identification), made by Texas Instruments and sold for about $3. It can be made much smaller — about the size of a fleck in a snow globe — and for as little as 10 cents.
The promise of smart tags is that they could serve as an advanced version of the omnipresent UPC bar code, providing information about not just what a product is, but also where it is, where it has been, and how it has been handled. A smart-tag reader in a warehouse, truck, or store can "query" all of the smart tags in its vicinity, taking inventory without human help. Smart tags are also being affixed to refrigerated containers to make sure that food is stored at the right temperature.
Gillette uses the tags to track cartons of Venus women's razors through a packaging and distribution center in Massachusetts, and may buy as many as a half-billion tags over the next two or three years. The tags could also tell retailers how many cans of its shaving cream sit on their shelves at any given moment. Seven million tags are already attached to the keychains of drivers who pay for their gas with ExxonMobil's SpeedPass system. The tipping point for smart tags will likely arrive by 2005, when Wal-Mart will require its top 100 suppliers to attach them to each forklift pallet of products they deliver to the retailer. (Privacy concerns could slow things down. The fear: You could be traced through your clothing or possessions.)
"You'll see a lot of diverse uses," says Bill Allen, Texas Instruments' e-marketing manager for RFID products, "because not only can you store information on the tags, you can also rewrite it." In Iraq, the tags were used on a Navy hospital ship to track the location and triage status of injured soldiers. "And then," Allen says, "in peacetime, you've got a company like Prada, using [smart tags] to improve the customer's shopping experience."
PS: I bought the shirt. It was on sale for half off. But the tag wasn't smart enough to get my editors to pay for it.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.