Seminar Report: From Fuzzy Control to Disruptive Innovations


Fuzzy Control: A Case Study on Disruptive Innovation.

Fuzzy Control was invented by Prof LA Zadeh in 1965. It was simple to use, and defied conventional domain knowledge of Control that has been extensively studied by Academics and industry experts who required rigorous mathematical models. Traditional control systems were based on classic / digital logic, which took in discrete values ​​of between 0 and 1 in their computation system. Fuzzy control systems on the other hand, were built on a continuum of numbers between 1 and 0. It was taken into reasoning that was relative instead of fixed or exact, found in conventional controls. Many scientists, researchers and academies deeply embeded in conventional control theory and systems could not make the switch, as it challenges the very fundamental being of their knowledge. Most critically, it challenges their value systems. They were described in the "Innovator's Dilemma", described by Prof Clayton Christensen.

What is the Innovator's Dilemma?

Established firms do not recognize new entrant's products and technologies, which are initially inferior or perceived to be inferior and a non-threat. They continue innovating around their current technologies in performance, until market adoption of the new technologies supersedes demand for the firm's technologies, leading into unprecedented obsolescence.

Professor CC Hang proceeded to list a few technologies that have been displaced by 'disruptive technologies': The advent of transistors superseded vacuum tubes, mini-computers replaced microcomputers, and laser-jet printing has been replaced by inkjet printing, just to name a few .

Why do many reputable, established Firms with good management practices get caught with the Innovator's Dilemma? Many of these companies like Kodak and Motorola listened closely to the existing customers, invested aggressively in newer, more optimal technologies and allocated resources to innovations that promised the best returns. Professor Hang explained that good management practices only work when dealing with sustaining technologies- technology that often builds on existing products, often in improving / optimizing their measure of value, eg processing speed, larger memory.

What are disruptive technologies then? Professor CC Hang proceeded to explain with the help of graphical illustration. The dotted blue sloping lines denote the levels and increase of customer expectations over time. Key competing technology owned by a particular firm is shown progressing in the direction of the red arrow, due to sustaining innovations. A competitive competitive product is denoted with the purple arrow.

As technologies of a firm become central or core, the firm continues to invest and improve on its capabilities or complementary technologies that surround its capabilities. These measures are usually geared at improving measures of performance and strive to meet expectation of top- tier customers, or customers who constantly expect improvements in performance of the existing product line.

A new technology inferior as compared to the existing technology on performance, instead focusing on a different framework of measure, such as design may seem as a non-threat. However, as it meets the performance measure of acceptability, it may displace the market following of the middle- bottom tier following of the firms' technologies, the firm innovates around current technologies to meet the expectations of the top tier users. When the firms technologies become over-powered, or too good for even the top- tier users to embrace / enjoy, and the new technologies proceed to meet the expectations of all the users, the firm would find the adoption and demand of its technologies drastically reduced.

Prof CC Hang highlighted example of the Apple iPhone vs traditional Motorola handsets. Motorola was concerned with packing in features, faster processing speeds, ergonomic keypad when Apple launched its first iPhone 3, which had inferior speeds. However, that soon overtook the competition of Motorola because of its other attributes, particularly design and it's intuitive userability, customizable user interface. As a result, market demand for Motorola handsets plummeted and many of its operations had to be majorly scaled down / consolidated.

Professor CC Hang added that disruptive technologies may be challenging to develop or improve in its initial stages, especially if competing with existing technologies on a price / performance reduction. He proceeded to illustrate with the example of transistor radios. Initially, the radios were only adopted on AM frequency channels. Top scientists and engineers were hired to adapt transistors for portable radios that run on FM channels.

Another aspect of disruptive innovations which can be advancing to look at is through the creation of new markets, unknown claims. This field is highly uncertain, and most innovations are usually born from the emerging economies, as solutions are tailor around it. Some of these innovations have a higher adoption by the local community as they are far cheaper than existing technologies and serve the purpose of needs-to-be-met. Beside, emerging markets have a greater segment of population of 6 billion with far greater needs to be met than those of the developed markets of 1 billion of world population.

Professor CC Hang illustrated the example of opportunities of successful innovations emerging markets that have been launched, for example portable automatic external defibrillatiors that can be seen along the corridors of the Engineering Faculty. These were initially conceived as rural / communal hospitals in China were lacking in budget, trained medical experts and space for proper defribrillators. Upon successful application to the domestic Chinese market, the innovation found its way back into developed markets, it labeling it as a Reverse Innovation.

My insights from the seminar:

It is important to understand the histological perspective of technology developments. Instead of looking for cutting edge technologies like what Prof Hang mentions is common in world-class research facilities and organizations, engineers and researchers could think of disruptive approaches to innovations, applying concepts like frugal engineering.

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