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Peter BigelowIs automotive, not military or space, the impetus behind today’s electronics innovation?

Never say never. Every time I even think of saying “I will never,” something happens that makes me regret it. And yet here I am, once again, admitting to another of those instances of “I will never.”

This time, I allowed my experiences and background to cloud the reality on the ground. I started my career in the shadows of NASA. That great American technological juggernaut began when Kennedy challenged us to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. Conceptually, it all seemed so simple. For generations the US government, originally through the military and later with NASA’s help, drove dramatic technological advances by investing in new technology and the materials and processes necessary to achieve them, so that besides filling their immediate needs, those technologies would eventually become commercial standards integrated into consumer products.

With that notion hardcoded in my thinking, coupled with years working in industries filled with people with similar experiences and backgrounds, it was only natural whenever terms like “advanced technology development” were thrown about, the immediate thought was those technologies must have been developed by a military-centric company. So embedded was the concept, it trickled down to any newfangled contraptions that came on the market: personal computers, smartphones, entertainment systems, etc. For many like me, we immediately linked those new technologies to military-developed innovation. And even though I worked in a technology industry and knew better, I held dear the thought that exceptional technology was driven by military and space needs.

Which brings us back to that “never say never” moment. For years – decades – I have worked for companies focused on industrial, mil-aero, and “ruggedized” markets and applications. I would say, “I’ll never make products for automobiles or consumers!” Recently, however, I realized I most likely had it all backward.

Without my realizing it, the technology development paradigm has shifted 180°. Starting in the 1970s with relatively simple devices such as stereos and TVs, consumer product OEMs have universally stepped up their technology development game. While that shift was underway, developers of PCs took an industrial tool and, through advanced technology development, made it user-friendly, low-cost and powerful. Meanwhile, telecommunications morphed from Ma Bell’s landlines to handheld smartphones that are really computers with communication and camera features. And we haven’t even mentioned what some consider the greatest consumer product of all time: the automobile.

My first car had a standard transmission and carburetor. The only electronics “technology” was the AM radio. Fast forward to today, and even the most basic transportation is technology-rich with sensors, computers and interpersonal communications unthinkable a generation ago. Electronic vehicles such as Teslas are free of the internal combustion engine and rely solely on electronic technologies as unimaginable 10 years ago as the idea of a man walking on the moon was in 1960.

The fact is, amazing as the technologies our military and space programs develop are, the consumer product sector – those who make computers, entertainment systems, smartphones and yes, automobiles – is the true technological advancement leader today. It is now as likely that NASA could apply technologies developed for a smartphone as it would be a telecom company uses technology developed by NASA. The likes of Boeing may be better off going to GM or Ford for cutting-edge, robust advanced technology, rather than investing time and money in efforts that may result only in reinventing the wheel.

All of which makes one remember that, as electronics technology constantly changes and the rate of development accelerates, the industries leading that development are also in permanent transition. Industries historically not known for technology may develop the next hot product that sparks radical technology revolution. And industries that historically led the technological charge may be at a stage where they require just evolutionary technological refinement.

For business owners the quest becomes that much more challenging. Companies that might have said “never” to supplying NASA may find doing so easier than supplying Detroit. Companies that may have said they would “never” turn away from their mil/aerospace legacy may be better off going after consumer electronics. With all industries evolving, it requires far more inquisitiveness when searching out that next great opportunity to not miss out on a customer or market that is a better fit than it might have been in the past, and to not grasp at customers or markets that may no longer need what you can offer. And of course, it all requires never saying “never.” Change is inevitable. Accept that and you can free yourself of the lost opportunity – and embarrassment – of saying “never.”

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc. (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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