The batch of one

Standard

Branded fashion survives on exclusivity; limiting the supply and making something desirable and aspirational. Original paintings fetch more than the prints, and limiting the prints pushes up the value of both. But now more and more commoditised consumer products offer customisation, and customers have got used to demanding it: for example cars come with a multitude of options from added equipment through to colour and upholstery.

Manufacturers achieve this range of choice by completing the production process after selling the concept. Just in time manufacturing becomes just-after-the-sale manufacturing. This has the advantage of reducing stock and wastage, but creates a headache for supply chain logistics which needs to ensure all the specific parts are available at that time.

The logical conclusion for this type of manufacturing is the batch of one, where each version of the product is unique and bespoke. Common components, but potentially no two creations the same. 3D Printing is an enabler for this type of production, because the process can be produced on demand and with the necessary variations.

The idea of batches of one is not new. Anything handmade, hand painted, or hand crafted is arguably a batch of one, but often these are created from a plan or template, so things are not so different overall. The trend, however, is for complex physical production processes to become more and more individual so as to specify the colour, shape, weight, functionality, and so on.

But is manufacturing the only place we are seeing the batch of one concept applied? Actually not. Medicine is heading that way too. In the future, as genome mapping and genetic engineering becomes prevalent, so too will treatments that are tailored to the individual. Already medicine is becoming personalised, with various cocktails of pharmaceuticals being prescribed on a case-by-case basis. However, the natural endpoint for this is for the actual drug molecules to be dispensed into a carrier pill, the carrier serum or directly into the body just when needed. Each concoction uniquely tailored to the genetic make-up and current metabolic state of the specific human body.

Then comes education. Whilst attending the NEF Innovisions 2014 conference in London last week, much emphasis was placed on the changes ahead in teaching and training. How education is delivered is changing with the advent of digital content. But soon, the course, the exercises, the references and even the final examination and qualification could be delivered as a batch of one. A specific set of materials presented in a way that the particular student will most efficiently adsorb, retain and learn from, so as to provide an optimised set of skills for a very specific job or task.

This could go full circle of course – the uniquely trained human being becoming capable to develop unique products many times over, helped by medical treatments that keep him or her not just healthy, but specifically adapted to the task; be it with provision of training, nutrition, or medicine.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Smart Cities: Smart States: Smart Nations

Standard

Innovating Together for the 21st Century was the subject of a UK / Singapore event today in Central London, and despite the rhetoric and back-patting from both sides about past creativity and success, this is actually likely to be a programme that will yield good results in the future.

And the reason is that Singapore is a very technologically progressive nation; and one for which I have strong affinity and a high regard. I lived and worked there for five years and was able to start, grow and exit a high technology company within that timeframe. My microcosm of activity stress-tested its research and development capability, its start-up mentality, its business support infrastructure, its logistics, its connectivity, and its resilience to global issues (SARS and economic meltdown in the western world, to name but two). And it all worked well for me. Of course there were frustrations, but there were also great rewards realised and strong friendships created.

That experience happened between 2002 and 2007, and although the term hadn’t really been coined, Singapore was a pretty smart city even back then. I travelled with an RFID card (like London’s Oyster card of today) seamlessly on both buses and the underground, traffic lights were fitted with LEDs to reduce energy consumption, the electronic road pricing (ERP) system reduced city centre traffic jams, wi-fi was free (and fast) at Changi airport, libraries and many fast food outlets, and taxis had seat-back displays giving you information as you travelled. And when SARS struck, free digital thermometers were distributed widely and body temperature was recorded and uploaded across the island.

But interestingly at the event today, a major panel discussion centred on smart cities and Singapore’s aspiration to be not just a smart city, but a smart nation; and probably the first. Of course, this is semantics, because Singapore is a city state, so by definition if its city is smart, so is its nation.

But actually there is a real challenge in this ambition, because being a smart nation needs to embrace more than just the city infrastructure. It needs to include national policy, diverse public services, education, employment, entertainment, tourism, retirement, and healthcare across the country.

And although being contained in a city has its advantages, it is also a great opportunity to reap the benefits. Today, being smart involves much more than I witnessed a decade ago. It needs energy supply, water supply, air quality, movement of people, movement of vehicles, supply of food, deployment of security, scheduling of entertainment and so on to be monitored, controlled and optimised in real-time against data models and in-field feedback.

Steve Leonard of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Agency (IDA) summed it up well: connecting everything and everyone all the time! The ramifications are enormous. Huge data, huge insights, huge efficiencies and a huge competitive edge.

And in Singapore where everyone lives on top of each other and there has arguably been a kind of “benevolent dictatorship”, privacy is not seen as such a big deal as it is to us in the west. Whether this is morally right of wrong is another debate, but the point is that culturally Singapore is primed to embrace being a truly smart nation and many of the barriers we see in the UK are not so high in Singapore. As Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise explained in her talk: Singaporeans are a very pragmatic people.

So the UK would do well to collaborate on this ambition with Singapore as it could learn a lot, test a lot, and probably bring its own cities up to speed in smartness more quickly than it would in isolation.

The challenge for the UK is actually the part of being a smart nation. Firstly, there is more to the UK than London. Secondly, there is more to the UK than a dozen or so large cities. We have huge swathes of rural countryside with small towns and villages where even broadband is absent. Living in Malvern, I know all to well how being rural can put the brakes on growth and development. But significant things do happen in Malvern and we need to be part of the smart infrastructure too. Moreover, there are lots of other rural spaces like us where tourism, agriculture, education, energy production, niche commerce, etc. are contributing to the nation and can be done better in a smart integrated way.

So my view is that in this partnership, Singapore should focus on becoming the model smart city state, and the UK should focus on becoming the model smart nation beyond cities. What we learn from Singapore can be applied to our great cities, and what we learn from the rural challenge can be exported via Singapore to its Asian neighbours where indeed rural jungles, isolated islands, and lesser-developed suburbs proliferate.

Meanwhile, we are ready here in Malvern to be the test-bed for the smart exo-city.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Postscript: As a case in point, this article would have been published more quickly had the wi-fi been working on my train home to the rural hinterland of our yet-to-be smart nation.

The Biggest Big Data

Standard

At the risk of sounding like a technical dinosaur, I still have neatly filed away some 3.5” floppy discs. Their capacity a tiny 1.44Mb. I remember well the days that I used to pop them in and out of my Mac and other devices at the time thinking that I would never need any more storage than that. Of course I was wrong, by a long way. Megabytes, became Gigabytes, Gigabytes have become Terabytes and today, whilst listening to Pete Rose from HP talk at the Malvern Festival Of Innovation about Big Data, I heard for the first time about Brontobytes – yep, ‘brontobytes’, like that huge dinosaur! This is a huge, huge number, this is almost the biggest of big data.

Just to bring you up to speed sequentially we have a gigabyte, then add three more zeros to get a terabyte, add 3 more zeros to get a petabyte, then you go exabyte, zettabyte, yottabyte and then the aforementioned brontobyte. This is 10 to the power 27, or more zeros than you can comfortably write down or even quantify. Just to put this into context 10 to the power 24, the yottabyte, is the total strange capability of 250 trillion DVDs. So a brontobyte is 1000 yottabytes, in other words – massive!

These are immense numbers and in order to access (never mind find!) data that will be stored in this quantity, new computing methods will be required. HP Labs are already innovating, developing and researching into photonics to replace the copper connections within todays computers, servers, and tablets with optical connections – the much heralded computing at the speed of light, literally. In order to do this they have a research project called ‘The Machine’ to make computing more efficient by removing the 80% of time that computers spend on managing their environment – as in moving data from one place to another – and getting it to perform the task at hand. The technology and the new thinking (the innovation) needed to do this is immense, but with HP behind it and their enviable track record in innovation, it will no doubt come to market.

So will ‘The Machine’ be able to crunch through brontobytes at the speed of light? That’s the aim, that’s the dream, in fact that’s the future market need.

Oh and just in case you were wondering, the brontobyte will go the way of it’s dinosaur namesake, as the ‘geopbyte’ – that’s 10 to the power 30, is already in HP’s sights. Big Data will continue to get bigger!

****

Read more about ‘The Machine’ here : http://h30507.www3.hp.com/t5/Cloud-Source-Blog/The-Machine-a-view-of-the-future-of-computing/ba-p/164568#.VCv1ab4rjdk

Stuart Wilkes, Guest Blogger

So What Is Innovation?

Standard

The Malvern Festival Of Innovation has kicked off, for the next 4 days in the beautiful hillside town of Malvern. There is a range of exciting speakers talking on everything from Cyber Security and the Internet Of Things, through to manufacturing and bootstrapping. These are complemented with a diverse range of exhibitors such as Aston Martin and Lockheed Martin to small startups and entrepreneurs.

Everybody will talk ‘innovation’! But hang on, exactly what is innovation? I’m sure if you ask half a dozen engineers, you will get half a dozen answers – it’s the new, it’s a device, it’s a process, it’s an application, it’s a better solution…it’s all of these and more.

Being innovative, being an innovator is seen as a very good thing. These are the people who break new ground, rip up the rules and try something new. Not encumbered by the past, but excited by the future. Convinced that things, no matter what they are can be better. The human race can be moved forward by innovation in whatever form it comes and in whatever subject it occurs. Innovators will fall, but they pick themselves up, dust themselves down and keep pushing forward, enthused by the fact that one day they will ‘crack it’.

Innovators have given us smart phones, heart monitors, cars and planes; microwave ovens and digital cameras; They have delivered flat screens, HD, WiFi and more – and they are not done yet. With the world now more connected than ever innovators around the world can share and collaborate, they attack the big problems facing humanity as a collective.

It appears to me that innovation is not one thing, in fact innovation is a state of mind, and many of those minds are gathering for the next few days here in Malvern…

Stuart Wilkes, Guest Blogger

Additive manufacturing is Nature’s way

Standard

3D printing is one of the latest technology trends to enthuse the public and excite the journalist. Universities are using them for research tools, manufacturers for rapid prototyping, and schools are starting to buy them for their design and technology classrooms. Indeed, earlier this year, Festival-alumnus Luke Johnson called for help in an FT article to place one in every UK school, rather than just the privileged few that could afford the investment.

And 3D printing is certainly worthy of attention. For once we are starting to consider building complex structures in an additive way; brick-by-brick on a much smaller scale. This is second nature to those brought up on Lego, and this is also second nature to Nature herself. We as humans grow by the slow but accurate deployment of new cells, seashells extend by the gradual deposition of mainly calcium carbonate, and striking geological formations build up by sedimentation of rock and debris.

So we have been witness to additive manufacturing since the day we were born, yet we tend to manufacture most artificial things using subtractive techniques on moulded or extruded billets. This is a little wasteful of material, and not particularly elegant. Imagine if trees began life as solid 100-foot-tall blocks of wood and gradually eroded to reveal their structure with a large pile of waste shavings at their foot?

As we get to grips with 3D printing, one of the key milestones will be our ability to manipulate materials during the process to create continuously changing compositions. Look carefully at that tree again, and you will see that the deposited cells create a structure that transcends through root, wood, bark, softer wood, leaf, and fruit. And these themselves have complexities visible only on the micro-scale.

So our ability to slowly 3D print a lump of plastic, albeit in a complex shape, is not really enough to congratulate ourselves about. When we can control the self-assembly of a series of structures that seamlessly change from metal to polymer to ceramic so as to provide functional mechanical and electrical properties in just the right places, we are getting there. The test, for example, might be to 3D print the electric lightbulb. Any bright ideas?

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Should there be another E in STEM?

Standard

Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (the STEM subjects) to school-aged children is an incredibly important activity if the goal is to generate a more creative and innovative future. Of course the arts are creative and innovative in their own right, but wealth generation that fuels an economy (and in many ways funds art so that it can be enjoyed) is likely to come about through the application of STEM.

And that is where the other E comes in. STEM subjects on their own cannot lead to revenue. It is business acumen that turns a technical invention or scientific discovery into a viable commercial product or service. This relies on a firm understanding of Enterprise, or indeed that of being an Entrepreneur.

With this in mind, I think we are doing students a disservice if we encourage them to think STEM, but don’t teach them about how to commercialise results. Not everyone wants to be a businessman or businesswoman (the Entrepreneur), but appreciating what’s involved and understanding routes to market (Enterprise) that others may follow will help them focus on the overall importance of STEM.

At a recent panel session on the subject of STEM skills held in Birmingham as part of the Festival of Science, the point was made that the term ‘knowledge economy’ is an outdated concept. What is needed instead is ‘clever makers or clever builders’. In other words it is not good enough to just think good ideas, but you have to implement them into something tangible, usable and hence valuable. I would add ‘clever exploiters’.  I don’t mean exploit in terms of abuse, I mean exploit in terms of capitalise. Yes, I know, another E.

Young Enterprise is an example of a school-based initiative that promotes business thinking in students. But my experience is that YE activities are largely done in isolation of the parallel, and equally good, work of the likes of STEMNet, CodeClub and their ambassadors. Part of the problem being of course that there are few people with experience from both sides of the fence to act as advisors or mentors.

So perhaps we should start promoting the other E in parallel with STEM. Let’s call it Encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering, Enterprise and Maths: ESTEEM. How’s that for creativity?

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

P.S. Next Generation Innovators, part of the Malvern Festival of Innovation‘s schools outreach programme, will this year be encouraging students to think about innovation in both STEM and Enterprise.

Cyber Security: Can we innovate fast enough?

Standard

Some sectors seem to develop faster than others. The computer industry has always been a fast-track innovator fuelled by miniaturisation, a hunger for speed, and a creative community that has brought us the Internet, phone apps, tablets and now the promise of the Internet of Things.  How many other industries have delivered so much and consistently managed to lower the price for a given level of performance in the way the IT industry has?

But in parallel we have had to deal with a darker side of innovation: viruses, hackers, phishers and fraud. Our reliance on all things silcon from running our business to running our social lives is now under threat from others who can defraud our business and take over our lives.

The question is, can we keep up? The first challenge is that the industry needs to constantly develop new defences against cyber attacks, new algorithms to encrypt passwords, and new processes to plug vulnerabilities.  Then we, as the users, have to keep up too. We now have numerous accounts, numerous profiles, and a proliferation of data in cloud services and on devices. All of these are protected by our passwords that ideally need to be growing in complexity, changed frequently, and different for each service we use.  And as this trend continues, we start to feel the fatigue of staying abreast of it all and wondering if we can continue to function in this fast-paced world.

Interestingly, as a species, we have probably been here before. I’m sure the Stone Age man wondered how he could live in a world as bronze tools emerged and accelerated the pace of change in all walks of life he was accustomed to; hunting, gathering, farming, and crafting. And at the same time he no doubt feared the bronze weapons being unleashed on his world and wondered if he could develop defences against them as they became sharper, longer, heavier and more accurate.

More recently we had the industrial revolution in which people feared the speed and capability of the motorcar, train, plane and robotic production line. As these new inventions allowed us to travel at high speeds across land and water, so too they enabled nations to engage in warfare and espionage. As a race, though, we pulled through again.

Cyber does offer its own new challenges however.  In a way, it allows numerous layers of reality (or virtual reality) to be created, so things become very much more abstract. It is harder for our brains to rationalise abstract things like data. Is it valuable? how does it really affect our privacy and those around us? is it dangerous? and so forth.

The good news is that so far it looks like we can innovate fast enough. Our systems haven’t melted down yet, and there are plenty of new services and interesting new defences emerging each day.  We’ll hear about some of these at the Festival this year: the Internet of Things, cyber security, Big Data, assurance of complex systems, new approaches to passwords and encryption, etc. Assuming of course we’re not out-paced in the next few weeks and everything starts to unravel…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Boffins (Geeks, Freaks & Eggheads)

Standard

We’re looking forward to hearing from Quentin Cooper at the upcoming Family Show as he explores “why it is that for all they’ve done to radically change the world we live in, the popular image of scientists has hardly changed at all”. There are many scientist stereotypes; people that wear socks with their sandals, adults who can’t quite look you in the eye as they speak, brains the size of planets that are unable to function at the basic level needed to boil an egg, and so on.

But we have to be careful what we say here in Malvern because the town has an unusually high concentration of scientists for a rural settlement without a university. And it turns out that the word Boffin may well have originated from here!

If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, the derivation of the word is unknown but came into use around the time of the Second World War.  An example given is “the boffins at the Telecommunications Research Establishment” which is now the QinetiQ site in Great Malvern.  Consult Wikipedia and there is a citation of a pre-war use of the word; by J.R.R. Tolkien as a surname in The Hobbit.  Interestingly, Tolkien was a frequent visitor to Malvern, travelling up to the town from Oxford with fellow author C.S. Lewis. It is said that Middle Earth and The Shire were inspired by his walks on the Malvern Hills, just as the Victorian gas lamps that still operate today in and around Malvern inspired the opening scene in The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe.

Quentin refers to boffins as Geeks, Freaks and Eggheads in the title of his talk. Another common term in modern parlance is Nerd. Consult Roget’s Thesaurus, and it also includes more complimentary terms such as Scientist, Technologist, Scholar, Expert, and Savant. Peter Roget published his collection of words well before the second world war in 1852, so in that first edition Boffin would not have been included. However, I think you might arguably now refer to Roget as a Boffin.  Roget died in 1869 and happens to be buried in West Malvern, so he remains in good company!

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Calm before the storm

Standard

As we approach the third annual edition of the Malvern Festival of Innovation, anyone who has organised an event will know that there is a nagging worry that no one will turn up. Today there are so many trade shows, public events and schools activities that standing out from the crowd is not easy. And since the Festival was founded in Great Malvern, we have noticed a growing number of innovation festivals vying for attention.

But we have something that we believe others lack; a simply stunning location in the heart of the United Kingdom where innovation has been a key part of the local culture and heritage for hundreds of years. The Malvern Hills must have inspired creative thought, technical inventiveness, and entrepreneurial opportunity since humans first stumbled upon them.

The iPhone may have been designed in Silicon Valley, but the liquid crystal display chemistry came from Malvern, as in fact did the architecture of an Integrated Circuit, and the approach of using a capacitive touch screen to access content. Scientists in the defence research facility in Malvern were also responsible for Radar, passive infra-red detectors that now protect homes from intruders, and numerous other technical wonders; many of which remain esoteric or top secret! Today we are a recognised national hub for cyber security.

But innovation is not just about science and technology. Innovation must include new ways of creating business, new approaches to teaching, and creative novel ways of improving health. Malvern has seen plenty of this innovation too; England’s oldest preparatory school, The Elms School, was established at the foot of the Malvern Hills and still educates today.  This development paved the way for a new way to teach school-aged children and is a sector that remains very strong in Malvern today. Malvern’s water is believed to be the first in the world to have been bottled commercially, and has since been drunk by royalty and continues to be bottled today from the original source.  This spring water also played a key role in Victorian health with the renowned water cure that went on to establish Malvern as a key tourist destination for those wishing to escape city pollution and have a breath of fresh air. Today about one and quarter million people visit the Malverns each year!

Thankfully there is plenty of fresh air in Malvern. We are currently taking deep breaths of it ahead of what will be a busy few weeks leading up to the next edition of the Festival. Luckily we know from past experience that plenty of people will turn up. But it would be super if you were one of them – see you there!

 Adrian Burden, Festival Founder