Angelo Hulshout is an experienced independent software craftsman and a member of the Brainport High Tech Software Cluster.

11 May

Angelo Hulshout has the ambition to bring the benefits of production agility to the market and set up a new business around that. Keep an eye on the disruptors and don’t take too small steps.

It’s 9 PM on a Friday. I walk over to the kitchen counter and press a few buttons. A plate of biscuits and a glass of orange juice appear, which I take to the living room. Ten minutes later, my wife comes out of the shower and makes a glass of red wine by clicking a different sequence of buttons – using her own profile. There was a time that we saw this on Star Trek and never imagined it would be real. Now it is.

We really enjoy the machine that allows us to print our drinks and snacks from tap water and a cartridge with 150 ingredients. The cartridge lasts a month and by using it, we no longer have to buy plastic bottles and snacks wrapped in plastic. This way, we do our share of making the planet plastic free.

Disruption or evolution?

Of course, this isn’t really what happened last Friday. The replicator, as it’s called, is still something that only exists in Star Trek. Or is it? An American company called Cana is actively working on making a machine like this reality: the molecular beverage printer. They’re planning to release a version for cold drinks in 2023 and ultimately reduce the sales of plastic bottles in the US alone by 70 percent. Less plastic, fewer logistics and less pressure on the environment is the idea. Disruption of the beverage market, possibly worldwide, is what Cana has made its goal. The big companies are keeping a close eye but haven’t yet given real responses to proposals for collaboration.

At the same time, I’m working on projects in factories that want to (more or less gradually) improve their effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability. We look at current ways of working, collect data and define stepwise improvements. Part of it is digitalization, part of it is data science and part of it is good old process improvement.

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A lot of small-scale manufacturers use spreadsheets and printed worksheets to manage their production. This works fine until they start growing, or want to improve their numbers. That’s where we try to define the steps to take and help them digitalize their planning and tracking, their material intake and other processes. It’s an evolutionary approach and it takes quite some time to get to the final goal.

More or less risk?

Hearing about companies like Cana, and keeping an eye on the likes of Tesla, Additive Industries and others, makes me wonder if we’re doing the right thing. On the one hand, we’re keeping existing businesses stay in business by helping them improve their way of working. On the other hand, some of these companies run a high risk of being pushed out of the market by disruptors like Cana.

The evolutionary approach is less risky than the disruptive approach, which gives companies and their employees a sense of security – after all, people don’t like change. Yet, this could be a false sense of security; if we can do 3D printing with plastics and metals, and in the future with food, how will that affect small manufacturers that now produce the same items in a more traditional way? Their market runs the risk of being taken over, sooner than they may expect.

At the same time, the disruptors take a lot of risks and they may not succeed. They may overestimate their market potential, causing their products to fail – completely if the market isn’t there, partly if the market reacts slower than their investors were hoping for. If that happens, they’re gone and in a lot of cases, their idea is lost, too. Tesla and Additive Industries made it, so far, and their competitors are following in their footsteps, so they may be the successful disruptors.

Digitalize fast

It seems wise to consider where to go with smart industry solutions: do we take baby steps to stay (or feel) safe or do we make major leaps and try to disrupt our markets? Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat is often (mis)quoted saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” which is of course not the way we want to approach this.

Disruption is a good thing in its own right: if it weren’t for the Teslas and Additive Industries of this world, or software companies like Mendix, I suspect not much would be going on in electrical cars, 3D printing and low-code software development. Still, no disruptor has completely wiped out a market in less than a few decades. Despite Amazon, we still have physical bookstores; despite Netflix, we still have TV broadcasts; despite Easyjet, we still have expensive luxury airlines. However, it does make sense to keep an eye on the disruptors and make our steps not too small.

Digitalization is key – Cana, Tesla and others are proud of being (almost) fully digital. Software is a major part of their product and updating (software inside) a product instead of replacing it is very powerful. That also applies to digitalized production lines in factories. Keeping up with disruptors may be easier when digitalized, so I consider it good practice to advise our customers to digitalize fast, instead of spreading it out over a few years. It may not help them survive for eternity, but it will allow them to at least keep up with the future for a while and maybe create their own disruption. Maybe not on a global scale, but small manufacturers often operate locally or in a niche market and don’t need to disrupt the whole world.

Main picture credit: Eden Constantino on Unsplash

Edited by Nieke Roos