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Select a product category or application area related to a technology of interest to you. In many cases the emergence of a product in the marketplace can be associated with timely availability of an “enabling technology,” the key technology that made the product feasible, the one without which the product would not be able to serve its purpose. For many technology-enabled products or applications the product first appeared when the technology finally became powerful enough. For example, electric vehicles (EV) were impractical until battery technology improved to the point at which it could provide an adequate supply of stored energy per unit weight (kwh per kg). Prior to that point the performance of the enabling technology was inconsistent with acceptable design parameters for a vehicle.
Calling one technology “enabling” does not indicate that the other technologies embedded in the product are not also important. They are just not essential to its existence. Some products can be said to have more than a single enabling technology. This is especially true of products that represent architectural innovations. For example, the first smart phone, the iPhone, would have been impractical without superior technologies related to the microprocessor, display, materials, battery, antennae, human interface design, software, etc. It is hard to identify any one of them as the most important enabler.
The enabling technology phenomenon is often highly complex, with multiple and sometimes conflicting technological, economic, environmental, safety and geopolitical factors. Returning to the EV example, a problem that lengthened the time before appearance of the product category was the high cost of the lithium batteries powerful enough to allow a vehicle to drive 250 miles before it ran out of battery power. Ford revealed that as recently as a decade ago the manufacturing cost of an EV included $17K per vehicle just for batteries. So some product categories are never released because they would be too expensive for most buyers.
Understanding the pivotal role of an enabling technology is essential to developing leading new products. For the product category you choose to study for this assignment, identify the key enabling technology issues. Think of these as the issues that you, as a technology development manager or senior advisor, would have to wrestle with. Ultimately, CTOs, CSOs, CMOs, CEOs, etc., although often not technical specialists, are nonetheless empowered to make decisions on new product R&D and related spending. This is the process in an established company. In the entrepreneurial sector the key figures with similar decision making responsibilities are the venture founders, key employees, business partners, and venture investors.
For this assignment, tell the story of a product development that involved an identifiable critical enabling technology. You may focus on cases that were a great success or those that were an embarrassing failure. You may focus on historical cases, currently evolving cases, or future cases in which the outcome is hypothetical. If a case involves trade secrecy or sophisticated intellectual property considerations, it may not be suitable for this assignment because it will be difficult to find the necessary resources and references. However, it is not necessary to restrict yourself to published material. You are welcome to use a case in which you are personally knowledgeable or a case in which a colleague can make you aware of key issues regarding enabling technology. In situations involving imminent commercialization try to link technological issues to relevant business considerations. One such consideration is market attractiveness. If a product development is successful because the enabling technology works, that does not necessarily mean that the marketplace will make the product a commercial success.
Tell the enabling technology story behind it in about 800-1000 words.