Category Archives: Technology

Brad Blumer (2013) Expensive batteries are holding back electric cars. Can that change?

One of the big reasons why electric cars have been slow to catch on is that batteries are still hugely expensive — usually around $12,000 to $15,000, or one-third the price of the vehicle — and can provide only limited range.

So, will these batteries ever get better? That’s the big question. Some analysts are deeply skeptical that improvement will be quick or easy. In the newest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Fred Schlacter hasan essay on why batteries are fundamentally different from things like mobile phones or computers:

The public has become accustomed to rapid progress in mobile phone technology, computers … These developments are due in part to the ongoing exponential increase in computer processing power, doubling approximately every 2 years for the past several decades. This pattern is usually called Moore’s Law and is named for Gordon Moore, a cofounder of Intel.

Now here’s the bad news. “There is no Moore’s Law for batteries,” Schlacter says:

The reason there is a Moore’s Law for computer processors is that electrons are small and they do not take up space on a chip. Chip performance is limited by the lithography technology used to fabricate the chips; as lithography improves ever smaller features can be made on processors.

Batteries are not like this. Ions, which transfer charge in batteries, are large, and they take up space, as do anodes, cathodes, and electrolytes. A D-cell battery stores more energy than an AA-cell. Potentials in a battery are dictated by the relevant chemical reactions, thus limiting eventual battery performance. Significant improvement in battery capacity can only be made by changing to a different chemistry.

Scientists and battery experts, who have been optimistic in the recent past about improving lithium-ion batteries and about developing new battery chemistries—lithium/air and lithium/sulfur are the leading candidates—are considerably less optimistic now.

So that’s the pessimistic case. Batteries will continue to be a serious limitation for electric vehicles unless we get dramatic new breakthroughs in battery chemistry.

But is Schlacter being too gloomy? On Twitter, Ramez Naam pointed me to a 2009study finding that lithium-ion batteries have made some significant strides in the past two decades, with energy density rising and prices falling.* (That said, the rate of improvement appears to be slowing toward the end):

lithium ion

Meanwhile, the truly optimistic analysts will argue that even incremental tweaks can yield dramatic results. So perhaps there’s no need for Moore’s Law-style gains. A 2012 analysis from McKinsey & Co., for instance, predicted that the price for lithium-ion batteries could fall by as much as two-thirds by 2020, down to around $200 per kilowatt-hour.

All that’s needed, the McKinsey report argued, is slow, steady improvement: As new factories come online to produce more and more batteries, economies of scale will drive down the price. So will a reduction in the cost of components, as well as smaller technical advances in cathodes and electrolytes that increase the capacity of batteries.

And if battery prices do fall below the $250/kwh mark, as the McKinsey researchers expect to happen within the next decade, then suddenly electric vehicles make a lot more financial sense, even with gas prices at their current levels. The economics shift drastically:

This chart sums up the basic situation: The overall cost of batteries will go a long way to determining how quickly electric vehicles gain in popularity. But the much, much harder question is whether big, long-shot chemical breakthroughs are the only thing that will get us there, or whether smaller steps might do the trick.


Note: It’s worth clarifying something that commenter perkinisms notes — the rate of improvement in lithium-ion battery energy density appears to be largely linear, while the improvement in computer processing power has been exponential. Batteries aren’t improving quite as fast.

via Brad Plumer (2013) In Washington Post, online eidtion 02.04.2013



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Rupert Wingfield-Hayes (2013) : What happened to Japan’s electronic giants? In: BBC News Asia; April 2nd, 2013

What happened to Japan’s electronic giants?

A Sharp sign in an electronics storeElectronics giant Sharp has been losing money fast

Japan’s electronic giants once ruled the world. Sony, Panasonic, Sharp were household names. Now those same companies are in deep trouble, losing billions of dollars a year. How have the mighty Japanese companies fallen so low? The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Tokyo looks at what went wrong.

If you want to get an idea of what’s gone wrong with Japan’s electronics industry go for a ride on the Tokyo metro.

The Tokyo metro (or a lot of it) now has 3G mobile reception. But you’re not allowed to talk on your mobile phone on public transport in Japan, so everyone in my carriage was busily texting away on their 3G devices.

And what particular device were they using? A quick survey of the carriage I was in found about 80% were holding an Apple iPhone.

That’s admittedly not a scientific result – but the evidence is pretty stark. Where once everyone would have been listening to a Sony Walkman, today it is Apple and Samsung that dominate, even here on Sony’s home ground.

The evidence can also been seen in their financial results. Japan’s electronic giants are bleeding red ink.

Sony may make a small profit this year, its first since 2008. Panasonic (formerly Matsushita) is expected to post a $9bn (£6bn) loss this year. Sharp, which is much smaller, is losing money so fast it will not survive another year without a major infusion of cash.

So what went wrong?

Digital challenge

According to Tokyo-based economist Gerhard Fasol, the Japanese giants were overtaken by the digital revolution.

The Japanese giants, he says, actually built their empires on making complex electrical machines – colour televisions, radios, cassette players, refrigerators, washing machines.

Japan has to become a brain country”

Gerhard FasolEconomist

Yes, they contained electronic components, but they were basically mechanical devices.

But then came the digital revolution, and the world changed.

“The Sony Walkman is a classic example,” Gerhard Fasol says. “It has no software in it. It is purely mechanical. Today you need to have software business models that are completely different.”

The digital revolution not only changed the way electronic devices work, they changed the way they are made.

The whole manufacturing model shifted as companies moved production to low-cost countries. That has put huge downward pressure on profit margins for Japanese manufacturers.

“Look at Apple,” Mr Fasol says. “They make iPods and iPhones.”

“Apple makes at least 50% profit margins on those. People say iPhones are made in China, but maybe only 3% of the value of an iPhone stays in China.”

“So it’s hard to become rich today on the scale of a Panasonic just by manufacturing – you have to do a lot more.”


Hiroaki Nakanishi
Mr Nakanishi decided to drop many of Hitachi’s consumer electronics divisions

Unfortunately neither Panasonic nor Sharp responded to our repeated requests for interviews, so instead I went to see the boss of another Japanese manufacturing giant.

Hiroaki Nakanishi is the 66-year-old English-speaking president of Hitachi Corporation.

When he took over the reins at the 100-year-old engineering giant in 2010 it too was bleeding red ink. Mr Nakanishi immediately decided to do something very un-Japanese. He closed or sold loss-making divisions, most of them in consumer electronics.

“Digital technology changed everything,” he says.

“In the television industry it means that just one chip is now needed to produce a large and high quality TV picture. So now everybody can do it.”

“That means the new players from Korea and China, they now have the advantage.”

Hitachi had built its reputation on having the best technology. But now competition has switched to who has the best sales and marketing strategy, and the biggest advertising budgets. Mr Nakanishi says the Japanese companies just couldn’t keep up.

“The structure of the industry had completely changed,” he says. “We could not adjust to such an environment. So that is why I gave up those segments.”

‘Brain country’

Mr Nakanishi decided to return Hitachi to its core business: heavy engineering. Gas turbines, steam turbines, nuclear power plants, high-speed trains, these are the areas he believes Hitachi can still be a world beater, especially in the developing world.

“In developing countries they don’t have specific planning and construction know-how [for big infrastructure projects], but we have,” he says.

“It is not simply a case of selling machinery, but also the engineering, planning, even sometimes the financing of a project. That total process, that is our most important advantage.”

Mr Nakanishi’s strategy is working. Hitachi is back in profit. Hitachi trains are the front-runner in the competition to replace all of the UK’s fleet of inter-city high-speed trains.

But it will not be as easy for the others.

A Hitachi factory
Hitachi has switched its focus to heavy engineering

Sony is the strongest of the three. But even Sony makes far more money today out of selling life insurance than it does out of making electronics. Panasonic and Sharp have less to fall back on.

Gerhard Fasol says that once again, just as they did back in the 1950s and 60s, the Japanese companies need to learn from America.

“It’s no coincidence that many of the most successful companies today are in Silicon Valley,” Mr Fasol says.

“Companies like Cisco or Oracle are not affected by the Korean competition. Japan has to become a brain country. It’s a country like Switzerland or England.”

“You have very high education and very clever people so you have to use that. Sometimes that value can be captured through manufacturing, but in other cases through software. And software has been neglected in Japan.”

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Jim Tompkins (2013): What is the Amazon Effect?

from his blog Tompkins International

Jim Tompkins, founder and CEO of Tompkins International, is a long-time supply chain guy. And guess what? Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, is a supply chain guy too. He has to be, because business is now at a critical X-Roads in demand-driven supply chain and customer satisfaction.

Amazon has invented – and is continuously refining – new ways to connect customers with solutions. They are your biggest competitor. Watch the video:

“For many businesses, Amazon is simultaneously a sales channel, a potential service provider, and a competitive threat.”– Forrester Research

In this video you will learn about these topics:

  1. What is the Amazon Effect?
  2. Which Amazon? Products and Services
  3. The Magic of Amazon Prime
  4. Amazon Network & Two-Day / Same-Day Delivery
  5. What Can We Expect from the Amazon Brick-and-Mortar Store?

You know that Amazon is exploding in the online retail world. Odds are that you’ve recently ordered something from their website. But did you know that they are also your company’s biggest competitor, regardless of the products you sell or your industry?

Today, we want to help you understand more about your supply chain by understanding more about theAmazon Effect. This huge and mysterious Amazon Effect is about to get even closer to your customer base because the online retailer is planning to open its first brick-and-mortar store.

“Amazon is a black box… It’s difficult to discern any of the company’s essential goals.”– TIME Magazine

What in the world will this new Amazon store look like?

Jim Tompkins has some expert insight into the store’s likely features and how you can compete with Bezos’ expansion plans. Tompkins predicts that between now and holiday season of 2013, both in-store and online retailers have major decisions to make that will result in either success or bankruptcy.

“We are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”– Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

The traditional thinking around customer satisfaction, distribution networks and operations is obsolete given the X-Roads that we sit at today with the Amazon Effect.  We can talk about multichannel, omnichannel and every other buzz word – but at the end of the day, it’s really about price, selection, convenience and experience.

Learn how to compete with Amazon, and you will survive Business at a X-Roads.

Want to learn more? Read expert opinion and view an illustration on what an Amazon brick-and-mortar store will look like.

The Amazon Store: What Will It Look Like?

It seems like Amazon announces a new product or service every week, and its growth shows no signs of stopping. For example, its dedicated business-to-business website,AmazonSupply, offers price, selection and delivery options that make it a big competitor for industrial distributors.

Amazon’s future plans, both short-term and long-term, are typically hidden from view. While business leaders, news analysts, and social media channels are all watching Amazon to solve the mystery of how fast its growing or what new markets it is getting into, a topic of major speculation is how an Amazon brick-and-mortar store looks, and how it will perform.

When you think about what an Amazon store looks like, the size of the store is the first thing that comes to mind. With the millions and millions of SKUs Amazon has, wouldn’t an Amazon store have to be about the size of the state of Vermont? But of course, that’s impossible; nor will it be bigger than the world’s largest Wal-Mart.

Instead of focusing on size, consider the Amazon culture and compare it to other popular ones: Starbucks comes to mind. Then think of the Apple stores, where they have the Genius Bar for in-store customer support and service, and the devices right there for you to try.

Put these two concepts together, then think about how Amazon is customer-focused. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said so himself: “Do not be competitor-focused. Be customer-focused.” What do customers want? Price, selection, convenience, and experience. When you add all these together, what do you get?

A Tour of the Amazon Brick-and-Mortar Store

“We see customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”– Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

The Amazon store is three-stories tall, and it’s open 24/7. On the first floor, in the center, you will see the coffee bar, with lockers in the back where you can pick up the items you ordered online. That is actually the extent of product in the store – items customers have already ordered, waiting to be picked up.

Customer service agents will be positioned on the left side of this first floor, who can tell you how to use all the Amazon products and services. Then on the right side of this floor you can find all the Amazon-related electronics, like the Kindle.

Take a trip up to the second floor. Here you will find all of Amazon’s product offerings from the various other sites they own: For example, Abe Books, which is Amazon’s rare book offerings. There will be local offers, similar to Groupon, on this floor. You can also find all the Amazon Wireless-related cell phone services.

The second floor is going to be fun place to hang out with your friends. Products won’t be there, but there will be displays and employees to tell you how to use the site to order a product and help you get a good deal. This floor is where you find merchants like Zappos for shoes, MyHabit for designer-label fashion… the list goes on and on. Here is a sampling.

  • AmazonPrime
  • Shopbop
  • Audible
  • Book Depository
  • Whs. Deals
  • CreateSpace
  • Woot

The third and final floor will help you navigate all of Amazon’s many service offerings. Experts will be on hand to help you build a website hosted by Amazon, get you set up with display ads posted by Amazon, track your web site’s hits, and services to help you take credit card payments from customers on your site. They can help you with fulfillment of orders, store your data in the cloud, and many other business applications.

Since its early days, Amazon has developed many innovations in online convenience, including one-click check-out and advanced search and recommendation functions, as well as Amazon Prime. When they apply that innovation to a brick-and-mortar store, and add customer experience to their customer-pleasing good prices, convenience, and selection, businesses in any industry need to be prepared to respond.

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John Naughton (2013): Why the Facebook and Apple empires are bound to fall. In: The Guardian 27. January 2013

The Guardian

History should teach us that for today’s technology industry titans, the only way is down. Just ask Microsoft

Mark Zuckerberg launches Graph Search

What goes up must come down: Mark Zuckerberg launches Facebook’s Graph Search. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Nothing lasts forever: if history has any lesson for us, it is this. It’s a thought that comes from rereading Paul Kennedy’s magisterial tome, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which he shows that none of the great nation-states or empires of history – Rome; imperial Spain in 1600; France in either its Bourbon or Bonapartist manifestations; the Dutch republic in 1700; Britain in its imperial glory – succeeded in maintaining its global ascendancy for long.

What has this got to do with technology? Well, it provides us with a useful way of thinking about two of the tech world’s great powers. The first isApple. The past week saw a veritable torrent of hysterical reaction to its quarterly results, coupled with fevered speculation about its future. The globe has been hypnotised for years by Apple’s metamorphosis from a failing computer manufacturer into a corporate giant that, on some days, is now the most valuable company in the world, with bigger cash reserves than the annual GDP of some countries. But as with all inexorable growth curves, the question on every commentator’s lips is: has Apple peaked?

If you think “hysterical” is a bit harsh, then ponder this. Although Apple did not sell the 50m iPhones that had been forecast for the quarter (it “only” shifted 47.8m) and sales of its Mac computers were down somewhat, nevertheless the quarterly results mean that in 2012 Apple earned more in the year than any other corporation, ever. And even the quarter’s supposedly disappointing earnings of $13.1bn were the fourth largest of all time, according to the same metric. And the reaction of the stock market to this news? The share price dropped 10% in after-hours trading.

Then there’s the social network Facebook with its billion users, which is likewise the focus of much hyperventilating comment. Recently, the Mark Zuckerberg empire launched its latest deadly weapon with the catchy name of Graph Search – as in “social graph”. Facebook’s new tool is just an algorithm that finds information from within one’s network of friends and supplements the results with hits from Microsoft‘s Bing search engine, but to read some of the commentary on it you’d think that Zuckerberg & co had invented either a perpetual motion machine or a through-ticket to hell.

“Facebook’s new search engine attempts to build walls around theinternet and keep its horde within its gates,” wrote the webmaster of arespected online magazine. “It’s a nightmare and it will probably work.”

Actually, it’s Facebook’s latest attempt to become the AOL de nos jours. And, in the end, it will fail for the same reason that AOL’s attempt to corral users within its walled garden failed: the wider internet is just too diverse, innovative and interesting. But because Facebook looms so large in the public consciousness at the moment, it’s difficult to keep it in perspective. Which is why Kennedy’s book makes such salutary reading.

So what we need to remember as we wade through the current overheated commentary on Apple and Facebook is that nothing lasts forever. I have been in this racket long enough to remember a time when Microsoft was at least as dominant and scary as these two companies are now. Spool forward a couple of decades and Microsoft is still around, but actually it’s an ailing giant – profitable but no longer innovative, trying (and so far failing) to get a foothold in the post-PC, mobile, cloud-based world.

Although the eclipsing of Apple and Facebook is inevitable, the timing and causes of their eventual declines will differ. Apple’s current strength is that it actually makes things that people are desperate to buy and on which the company makes huge margins. The inexorable logic of the hardware business is that those margins will decline as the competition increases, so Apple will become less profitable over the longer term. What will determine its future is whether it can come up with new, market-creating products such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Facebook, on the other hand, makes nothing. It just provides an online service that, for the moment, people seem to value. But in order to make money out of those users and satisfy the denizens of Wall Street, it has to become ever more intrusive and manipulative. It’s condemned, in other words, to intrusive overstretch. Which is why, in the end, it will become a footnote in the history of the internet. Just like Microsoft, in fact. Sic transit gloria.

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Japan Egg Technology

from the Japanese Minstry of Foreign Affairs.


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