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Times & Trends: The Arc of Technology

Aug. 1, 2016
The electrical market usually accepts new technology at its own pace, but the basic tenets of new product acceptance still apply.

This month’s issue explores how the electrical industry is adopting two new technologies — LED lighting and industrial automation products.  While on the surface it might seem you couldn’t find two more unrelated product areas, both areas are being revolutionized by the Internet of Things (IoT), or in the case of factory automation products the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Say what you want about the IoT, it’s rocking the lighting and industrial automation worlds because of its ability to remotely and wirelessly control an awful lot of industrial processes on the factory floor and lighting systems in virtually any kind of building.

In his article, “A Journey to Reality with IIOT” (page 18), Frank Hurtte explores how the remote diagnosis of plant-floor equipment with IoT-based technology can save distributors’ end-user customers thousands of dollars by eliminating some unnecessary on-site service visits. That sounds like a killer app that would entice users to jump in early on IoT.

But as with the any new technology, the road to widespread acceptance isn’t without a few bumps along the way. In EW’s recent survey of Top 200 electrical distributors, we asked about their experiences with stocking LED lighting products, because we heard about the inventory management challenges distributors were having with a product that at times has the shelf life of fresh vegetables. As you will learn in Executive Editor Doug Chandler’s cover story this month, to succeed in the LED lighting market, distributors have to work with LED vendors closely to fine-tune the inventory levels of new LED products with rapidly evolving technology.

I am always fascinated by how some new products gain almost immediate acceptance while others bomb. In the tech world, you have killer apps invented in dorm rooms that make some Millennials overnight billionaires. More recently, there’s the Pokemon Go app, which since its July 6 release broke Apple’s App Store record for most downloads in its first week and at press-time topped 75 million downloads.

In the not-too-distant past, remember how fast fax machines were accepted, and how we all stared at that first fax chugging through the machine’s rollers with the accompanying grunts and electronic whistles? Or how about the first time it hit you that the smartphone in your pocket replaced a land-line phone, video camera, music player, atlas and camera — and had more computing power than the IBM mainframes that guided astronauts to the moon in 1969?

Closer to the electrical market, think about the new products that seemed to be almost immediate hits, like connectors that didn’t need locknuts, wire connectors or battery-powered tools, and then reflect on the ones that weren’t, like some of those 1980s-era under-carpet cabling systems, or nonmetallic load centers.

Most new products either scratch an existing itch or solve an existing problem. Truly revolutionary new products blow apart existing product categories or create entirely new ones. Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t invent the personal computer, smartphone or tablet computer, but when the Macintosh computer, iPhone and iPad were launched, they came with some vastly superior capabilities compared to what was currently on the market.

Part of the challenge with any new product rollout is that each potential customer makes their purchasing decision at a different pace. You typically have a group of early adopters who want to utilize new technology to get a jump on the market; others who watch new launches closely but have more of a wait-and-see attitude than the earliest pioneers;  and more conservative  investors who won’t pull out their wallets until the technology is more mature.

To explore how LEDs are tracking the traditional arc of new product acceptance, check out EW’s April 2016 cover story written by  Bill Attardi, a 50-year veteran of the lighting market. He did a great job of showing how the adoption of smart lighting products is clearly following the Technology Adoption Life Cycle first published by Everett Rogers in 1962 in his Diffusion of Innovations textbook.

As IoT technologies enter the electrical market, I think you will be able to trace their progress with the same arc of acceptance.