Ripples from software, to marketing, to manufacturing

Ripples of Revolution

We can learn a lot by watching how a revolution moves from one profession to the next.

When it comes to rapid prototyping and adaptive development, as a result of digital technologies, the software industry naturally led the way. The very technology they invented helped change the way they work.

So, while the early days of software engineering were long cycle projects — waterfall project management at its grandest scale, often spanning a year or more — modern software development is much more frequently “agile.” Literally. Software professionals created agile software development methodologies to explicitly take advantage of the inherent flexibility of building in a digital sandbox.

Digital marketing was a similar revolution. As marketers began to realize the malleability of digital media, the speed of marketing accelerated.

It made smaller, more targeted, marketing initiatives economically feasible — expanding our ability to pursue niche marketing at scale. (Not as oxymoronic as it sounds.) It enabled far greater marketing experimentation — try something quickly, and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine, move on to the next idea. We now talk about “real-time” marketing.

Of course, most of us are still finding our marketing sea legs in this rolling digital ocean. It’s a very different marketing environment than the not-too-distant past. And while technology changes exponentially, organizations change logarithmically. It takes some time for us to adapt, master, and optimize.

So, it often helps to look back at the software community to extrapolate lessons from their experience. Hence, how agile marketing was inspired from the ideas of agile software development. And how the lessons of user experience are being adapted in the mission of digital customer experience.

But I believe it’s also helpful to look forward. By seeing new professions begin a revolution that we’re already well into, we can learn fresh ways of looking at our own transformation. For instance, software developers have learned a lot from digital marketing.

Now, marketing has the opportunity to learn from a new revolution: the rise of 3-D printing in industrial design and manufacturing.

This past weekend, I read an inspiring article by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, When Complexity Is Free. (Friedman is the guy who popularized the meme, “the world is flat,” a way of looking at competition in the age of globalization, with a bestselling book by that name.)

In a recent visit to G.E., Friedman talked with Luana Iorio, who oversees G.E.’s research on 3-D printing. Let me just quote a few paragraphs (with some emphasis added by me):

In the old days, explained Iorio, when G.E. wanted to build a jet engine part, a designer would have to design the product, then G.E. would have to build the machine tools to make a prototype of that part, which could take up to a year, and then it would manufacture the part and test it, with each test iteration taking a few months. The whole process, said Iorio, often took “two years from when you first had the idea for some of our complex components.”

Today, said Iorio, engineers using three-dimensional, computer-aided design software now design the part on a computer screen. Then they transmit it to a 3-D printer, which is filled with a fine metal powder and a laser device that literally builds or “prints,” the piece out of the metal powder before your eyes, to the exact specifications. Then, you immediately test it — four, five, six times in a day — and when it is just right you have your new part. To be sure, some complex parts require more time, but this is the future. That’s what she means by complexity is free.

The feedback loop is so short now,” explained Iorio, that “in a couple days you can have a concept, the design of the part, you get it made, you get it back and test whether it is valid” and “within a week you have it produced. … It is getting us both better performance and speed.”

See the parallels?

The long lead cycles of design and development are being revolutionized by a fast and iterative approach. Come up with an idea, immediately try it, tweak and revise as much as you like until you hone in on the version that works. Individual engineers have much more power and flexibility to create and experiment without incurring expensive overhead.

Admittedly, it’s also pretty cool that this experimentation involves zapping new physical components into existence — that certainly one ups what we’ve been doing with dynamic content in digital marketing.

The exhilaration that Iorio and her team are experiencing with this newfound freedom — and the infectiousness of that excitement that is passed along to Friedman and his readers — can fan the fire of innovation that we have in digital marketing.

What will they learn from us? What will we learn from them?

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