The serious problems of eWasteYou may remember a recent eNews item: "What to do with old computers" (eNews 22 Jan. 2005). Many people wrote back to say that they were simply "giving away" their old computers to schools in Mexico and other third-world countries that need this equipment. So, one feels good at having helped the underprivileged.
It turns out that "donating" electronics equipment causes BIG problems. It passes downstream costs (waste removal) to under-developed countries without adequate environmental regulations. Poor countries simply accumulate the dangerous hazards of e-waste (the term for this type of high-tech waste). The "donations" end up not being recycled, but as hazardous waste.
With accelerating technological change, rapid product obsolescence makes electronic products "disposable" very quickly. The lifespan of a computer has shrunk from 4 or 5 years to about 2 years. In the US, about 50% of computers turned in for recycling are in good, working order.
Electronics, the largest and fastest growing manufacturing industry in the world, aggressively promotes a culture of fast obsolescence and increased consumption. And the environmental consequences are disastrous. E-waste is the fastest growing portion of waste in developed countries. And neither the industry, nor the consumers, bears the downstream costs - disposing of the enormous quantities of wastes produced.
E-waste includes computers, monitors, televisions, cell phones, DVDs, VCRs, audio equipment and video games. Approximately 80% of today's electronics waste is warehoused by companies, or in consumers' homes (you may remember, my neighbor and I shared the same burden).
It's estimated that by 2010, there may be as many as 1 billion surplus or obsolete computers and monitors. In California alone, 6,000 computers become surplus every day. Today, computers are being replaced at a 2:1 rate; in less than 5 years this ratio will be 1:1. Tens of millions of computers are sold each year; this means that for every one purchased one will become obsolete, destined to become waste. If not managed, the environmental cleanup costs will soon be in billions of dollars.
This enormous waste stream contain billions of pounds of hazardous materials, including lead, mercury, beryllium, cadmium, brominates (flame-retardants) and more than 1,000 different toxic substances which are harmful to human beings and the environment. If not disposed of properly, these materials are harmful to humans, animals and the environment. Thrown into landfills, these substances leak and can eventually pollute groundwater.
Import of e-waste, mainly from the US and Europe under the guise of "donations" is already causing havoc in some poor countries. After some initial use, parts are resold by recyclers and the rest burned in illegal dump yards, often near poor, residential areas. Old electronics is often dumped along with municipal waste and then burned, releasing toxic and carcinogenic substances into the air. Chemicals such as beryllium, found in computer motherboards, and cadmium used in chip resistors and semiconductors are poisonous and could lead to cancer. Chromium in floppy disks, lead in batteries and computer monitors and mercury in alkaline batteries also pose severe health risks. An average 15-inch PC monitor contains 5 to 8 pounds of lead; many old laptop batteries include cadmium, one of the most toxic chemicals known.
There is an immediate need for industry, government, environmental groups and citizens to collaborate to solve the problems of e-waste, e-scrap, e-surplus, e-junk and e-discards.
There are 2 immediate solutions, which must be implemented through a combination of legislation and voluntary stepping-up-to-the-plate by manufacturers.
Open letter to the Automation Software IndustryThis "open letter" letter was sent by an engineer who has significant background and experience in industrial automation software. He includes some interesting insights and comparisons between Siemens, Rockwell and Invensys/Wonderware.
It's unusual for an engineer to "speak out" like this - I thought this forum would be an appropriate one for his remarks.
The author wishes to remain anonymous, because he continues to do business with all the companies discussed.
"Siemens seems to be much more of a top-down engineering company, whereas Rockwell seems to have a more "middle of the road" approach to product engineering. Often, fundamental usability features are left unaddressed for many months or years by Siemens, because they didn't think the customer would need them. Rockwell seems more responsive. On the other hand, Siemens is definitely in for the long haul. They try to engineer their products so that there is always a viable upgrade path. Rockwell products are more "disposable" - though in fairness, if you pay their asking price you'll get support.
"Comments about Wonderware and comparisons to Intellution and Rockwell Software are interesting to me. We use Wonderware and we're looking at alternatives. The real problem, however, is the industry's insistence on using a Microsoft Windows platform. Even the standards like OPC are based upon this unfortunate limitation.
"The big issues for us these days are security and patch management. Unfortunately, these are the weakest elements of Microsoft's operating systems. The problem isn't the lack of security; it's the haphazard nature of the security models they're using. I suspect it's possible to secure a 2003 Windows box well enough to expose it to the Internet safely, but most people don't know how.
"Furthermore, with many standards insist on the use of DCOM objects. I think it's dangerous to expose our control systems to our own Intranet, let alone the big bad Internet.
"Finally, I think it's time software vendors got a clue about where the real money is: Integration and Maintenance. I'm tired of endless license tracking. It's expensive. I'm tired of these endless releases of new OS which we have to keep up with. I'm tired of these products morphing day after day, forcing us to upgrade what we have, whether we like it or not. In some areas, we're two major releases behind current offerings. We don't see much benefit to upgrading either.
"So while you guys are busy looking at all this feature development, you should know that we are thinking at a more basic level: The OS.
"It's time to think about moving away from Microsoft and go either toward a more embedded system using well known standards to communicate, or to a generic POSIX based environment. We're holding back our dollars until that happens. We don't like where we are, and we sure don't like where the offerings in this industry are. This foolishness needs to end soon..."
The burgeoning business of NanotechI have been pointing out that Nanotechnology is a technology "inflection point" that's arriving. There's still plenty of hype, but nanotech is finally moving from the lab to the marketplace. The recent Business Week Nanotech feature (Feb. 14, 2005) heralds a bunch of new products made with new materials, engineered down to the level of individual atoms.
The realm of nanotechnology is a nanometer, a billionth of a meter - about the size of 10 hydrogen atoms in a row. At this size, matter behaves very differently. Familiar materials display new and useful properties, and a tiny dose of nanoparticles can sometimes transform the chemistry and nature of bigger things. At the nano scale, all kinds of wonderful new things start to happen.
Nanotech is not new - think about the difference between carbon atoms in coal, and in diamonds - time and pressure have ordered them into crystal patterns linked by super strong chemical bonds. Nanotech will make such transformations quick and commonplace - and seemingly miraculous.
Some 1,200 nano startups have emerged around the world, half of them in the US alone. This year (2005) several small, incubating companies will be introducing nanotech products. We'll see Hummer SUVs with scratch-proof trim; Wilson tennis racquets with extra pop, golf balls designed to fly and putt straight (yes, golf balls that are designed to prevent a shift in weight as they spin). The US Department of Defense is even developing a new class of weapons that uses energy-packed nanometals to make compact bombs with several times the detonation force of conventional bombs.
Initially, the biggest markets for nanotech will be materials in familiar products, giving them new, improved properties. But new nano-based products that will have a much bigger impact are getting close. Within the next year or two, diagnostic machines with components built at the nano scale will allow doctors and nurses to carry tiny laboratories around to make major tests in the field. Nano sensors will find anthrax and sarin in airports and post-offices. Within the next few years new nano-particle electronics will revolutionize electronic memory. The questions around nanotech are no longer whether it's coming, or if it's real, but just how big it will be. Analysts expect nanotech products and markets to total $300 billion within the next 3-5 years.
Some see nano simply as a new material science, similar to the development of plastics. Others think that it's much more - similar to human advances from stone to metal tools. Instead of one new phenomenon, like the Internet, nano offers revolutionary possibilities for thousands of materials that already exist.
So, who will win when this new inflection point turns the world? Will it be the big companies with giant R&D budgets and established markets to utilize the revolutionary, new products? Or, will it be the tiny incubating startups that utilize their technology leverage with good marketing and business sense, to generate the new giants of the 21st century?
Future-tech prognosticationsWith fast moving technology and unpredictable political and social changes on the horizon, it's difficult to project forward a few years. But, at least for me, it's an important personal, business and marketing exercise.
As I've mentioned, I profess to being a "Futurist" - it's my avocation. Futurists don't predict events, they track trends. The clever marketer is a futurist, a trend-spotter - hopefully before the trend becomes a stampede when it's too late to do much (if you're not the leader). Marketing is defined as finding a need, and filling it. And the good marketer must be savvy enough to recognize an emerging need before anyone else does.
So, bear with me while we make some tech prognostications. Today we have a whole bunch of products with interfaces which need fingers, thumbs, eyes and ears to navigate around, even the simplest of devices. If I could talk to my computer, I wouldn't need a keyboard. And how many other archaic products and habits would quickly be eliminated? Now that is a clear and present need - which technology cannot yet deliver.
When it does arrive (and arrive it will), talking with my PDA may be all that is necessary. The networked PDA will talk with the nearest computer. And the old desktop computer will vanish, simply becoming the large display on the nearest, convenient wall. So, how far in the future is that?
Gordon Moore pronounced recently that his Moore's Law will continue to be valid for several more decades. So, faster and more powerful computers will be doing a lot more things for a lot less money - which means they'll be used for many more applications everywhere.
Several advances are relatively easy to predict - universal high-speed communications (with 100Mbps and then 1000 Mbps broadband, video telephone calls should be common), auto-immune communications systems (location and elimination of virus, worms, Trojan horse and spy ware), intelligent robots (advanced versions of my Roomba vacuum cleaner doing many other things), advanced security and monitoring systems (stopping terrorists, but infringing on personal freedoms which is the price we'll pay), automated health care (everything except the ultimate specialists). And the list goes on. More changes in the decade ahead than the past two decades.
All this isn't hard to predict. The five-year horizon for technological advances is relatively easy, because most things are in the lab being developed. The 10-year horizon is more difficult because some key elements are not yet developed. For 20 years we have very little relevant information on which to make judgments. Worse, we are almost clueless when it comes to predicting what people will do with technology and how society will reshape.
Now, when it comes to socio-economic and political trends, the technology futurist becomes powerless. I'll defer you to the couple of links I've provided below, which make interesting reading.
But I must mention this shift. The last century was the age of analysis, of specialists who were digging in to know more and more about less and less. By contrast, this new century will be one of synthesis - people will integrate trends from totally different arenas to develop new forms of prognosticating science. And that's what I'd like to be - a renaissance futurist....
Would you invest in your own businessWould you invest in your own business if you were not already involved in the business? Would you be attracted to the industry you're in? Is the industry's outlook that promising? Are your customers prospering or is there continuing downward pricing pressure on both the customers and your business? Can you honestly assert that capital invested in your business, under your control, is one of the best investment opportunities you can think of? If you were investing for others, would you invest in your business?
If you hesitate to answer the last question affirmatively then the next question is what can you do in managing the business, assuming you have adequate capital, to make it an outstanding investment opportunity? Businesses succeed, fail or zombie-like hang in limbo, all based upon the implementation of management decisions. What can be done to make the business more attractive to you and therefore to possible investors? There are many different questions which have to be contemplated and addressed before reaching any conclusion as to the relative attractiveness of any business.
You might wish to review some of these questions by reading this interesting article by Arthur Lipper III, well-known as the originator of the "Lipper Ranking" and "Lipper Averages" - a mutual fund's ranking relative to its peers, and the average total return of a fund's peer group.
Art Lipper has been affiliated with the international financial community since 1954 and held several illustrious positions all over the world. You may wish to read his profile at the weblink below.
eFeedbackMichael Ding [email@example.com] of Constar Control Technology writes to us from Beijing, China. His Chinese Name is Ding Junying (Ding is his family name). I respect his ability to communicate in English, and have edited his message as little as possible.
"I think the growth of China is a normal phenomenon. It should be better for the US to adapt to the growth trend in China, instead of trying to stop it. Because:
"I also read your linked article, "Solutions for the China Challenge". From your standpoint, I understand them, and I think they will work to some degree. On the other hand, basically, business is driven by profit, and as you said, nations are fighting peacefully, so everyone is trying his best.
"For the US, its weapon is capital, high tech, advanced management, good education. But for China, there are much few advantages to use - only low labor cost, hard work, and, I think most important, STUDY. China has to study hard to catch up with advanced nations. But for the long term, I am confident that China, also India, will gradually catch the US."
"Engineers delight in doing extraordinarily complex and marvelous designs, but are not keen to get involved in the other facets of the company. I believe engineers have a tremendous ability to add value to the other disciplines such as finance/marketing/administration and overall management of the business. After all (apart from possibly more upside to one's remuneration) there can be no more enjoyable task than playing a key role in marketing or finance whilst having a deep knowledge of the engineering behind a product. And perhaps, as a result, playing a significant role in the long term future of the company (and thus ultimately your own long term prospects.)
"I would urge engineers to get involved actively in the other professions that drive a company, and put your stamp on these areas. You will be quite surprised by how much you enjoy it and how much more value you will add to your firm."
"You might not know that there are several dozen other directly related graphs & charts that we decided not to burden the book with, but have posted as free downloads (with all the book graphics)."
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