October 12, 2022
Emerging technology gets lots of coverage in all forms of media; obsolete technology is still the backbone of our economy. Self-driving vehicles excite some folks and annoy others. With the average age of our national “fleet” hovering around 11 YEARS, neither group will see its hopes or fears realized anytime soon. I try to keep this in mind every time the talking heads predict some innovation will completely change the way the world works. Truly transformative inventions are extremely rare and take a long time to make their presence known. Occasionally they take long enough to be thought of as “new” all over again. A great example of this is wind energy; a 2008 Department of Energy conference touted the United State getting 20% of its power from the wind by 2020. Research shows we had already been there once before; during the early 1920s, before the electrical grid and public utilities, farms and ranches used windmills to obtain 20% of the total energy used in the nation. Public policy provisions required farmers to remove those devices before hooking up to the utility lines. My hometown was at the epicenter of the transition to petroleum fuels and lubricants. In 1859, Colonel Drake drilled the first commercial well near Titusville Pennsylvania. 160 years later we are seeing the “age of oil” lose some momentum. Petrochemicals will remain important in the decades ahead but they will not be the predominant source of energy. Old machines are critical to production in most of our shops. Additive manufacturing, robots, and other “cutting edge” stuff has an attractive future, but no one can afford to throw out their old hobbing/shaping/milling machines just yet. Computer controlled flank grinding machines quickly supplanted their manual predecessors because they offered an incredible improvement in both quality and productivity. You simply could not afford to make ground gears the old fashioned way once the bugs were worked out of the new machines. Early adopters got stuck with some real “lemons” but we have all benefitted from the lessons they learned. Something to keep in mind when the next “world changing technology” is publicized.