The Rise and Fall of American Technology

By Lynn G. Gref | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2. THE WINNOWING OF TECHNOLOGIES THROUGH THE
DEVELOPMENT CYCLE

“Failure is the tuition you pay for success.”—Walter Brunell

Few technologies ever make it into products. Nearly forty years ago and during the course of doing some advanced planning, Bernie Haber, who was a consultant to our company and a retired vice-president for engineering and research at North American Aviation, observed that less than a third of the technologies coming out of one phase ever make it through the next phase. This would say that approximately three in a hundred ideas in the discovery phase result in a technology that becomes part of a product. The precise numbers are subject to debate but the concept is not. It is a profound and extremely important concept regarding the technology development cycle.

A funnel in which scientific observations or questions enter at the top and products come out the bottom can represent the technology development cycle, as depicted in Figure 2–1 In the course of this chapter, we will investigate the nature of the winnowing process and explore the realm of making the process more efficient. This chapter begins with some examples of technologies that did not really make it.

One area involving numerous technology development efforts has been the quest for solid-state memories to replace the “hard disk” in computers. Before proceeding, let us consider for a moment some computer basics. Computers work with strings of 1s and 0s called binary strings. The computer performs all its operations including arithmetic on these binary strings. These strings can represent ordinary numbers, characters of the alphabet, punctuation, pixels of an image, instructions to the computer, et cetera. Collections of binary strings represent information and programs. Thus, to store information or programs it is only necessary to store binary strings of 1s and 0s. Hence, in theory, anything that has two states can be used to store binary

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