Expectations vs. Reality

July 17, 2018

I am both inspired and annoyed by the innovation stories that regularly come out of Silicon Valley.

There is some really cool technology with lots of promise, but there’s also a fair amount of hyperbole and PT Barnum.

Since I’m a bike guy, a recent article in Fast Company caught my attention. The article boldly claims “Now you can 3D print an entire bike frame.” Okay, that seems doubtful but maybe ...

The article showcases the image above. Wow. Impressive. But when you watch the company’s very glossy video, the image at the bottom of this page is what the parts really look like.

So where did Bike A really come from? Was their actual process really used to create this bike? How much of it? Any of it? Or just a few parts? If so, how many hours went into finishing and painting? How much body filler was used? And if not, did they really just create a bike frame using perfectly conventional carbon fiber layups as a “vision” of what this process can eventually do?

Of course, what many of you are probably thinking is: “Dave, of course everyone knows that Bike A wasn’t really 3-D printed directly using their process. That’s not the point. When they say that, it’s just the typical enthusiastic spin that we can all contextualize. We’re all smart enough to know that when they show us this bike, it’s just illustrating to the potential of this process.”

Well, we as designers and engineers know this. But how about the general public? Or investors? In fact, our marketing director spotted the Fast Company story and thought it was so cool that she featured it on our social media feed because it came from a trusted media source. And it is cool. It’s just a bit premature. Because the article makes it sound like this technology has already been deployed whereas a careful read shows this technology has a loooooong way to go before we’re printing full frames at our local bike shop. The potential advantages of the technology are real – but that’s the thing. At this point they’re still just potential – with all the attendant risks and pitfalls that any exciting but risky emerging technology has at this point in the development process. But the article pretty wantonly skirts all this. See if you can spot the “hype” in the following clips from the article.

What they said What I think they meant to say
Now you can 3D print an entire bike frame… A new technology shows promise for one day being able to 3D print an entire bike frame
… a new bike-building robot makes it possible to make bikes locally… on demand–at roughly the same cost. Concepts for a new bike building robot might one day be able to make bikes locally
Since the robot does all the work, there are no labor costs Since a robot could one day do much of the work, labor costs might be able to be reduced
The manufacturing process also has a lower environmental footprint In the future, manufacturing processes using this technology could possibly have a lower environmental footprint
… the company claims that it has reduced the typical timeframe of designing a bike frame from 18 months to 18 days It’s hard to dignify this one with a response. I suspect the inventors feel that their new process will reduce the need to consider design-for-manufacturability but this sentence is so ridiculously hyperbolic it’s almost offensive. I have no doubt that a modern production, highly optimized bike frame from a major manufacturer like Trek or Specialized can take 18 months to design including all the careful market studies, design, analysis, testing and certifications. I also believe this company designed a one-off bike frame in 18 days. To equate those two exercises is pure misrepresentation.
At what point does hype cross over into deception and positive spin into outright fabrication?

So, is this just another example of the typical positive spin and commonly understood hyperbole that we expect from the Silicon Valley? Does everyone really know the reality and limitations of what they’re seeing? At what point does hype cross over into deception and positive spin into outright fabrication? And when, why and how did it become the norm to exaggerate in such a fashion?

The most infamous recent example of crossing this line is Theranos. Theranos was developing a testing technology that wasn’t quite ready for prime time, so at some point they enticed investors and the public with not just hype but test results that were really run on completely different processes and products. I don’t know, but I’m guessing that someone at Theranos thought, “Well, everyone knows and understands that this is a development project and what we’re showing has some degree of well-understood exaggeration. We’re just doing what every other company in the tech-startup space does and everyone knows the drill.” Of course, that later proved not to be the case and a lot of people lost a lot of money. Ironically they probably could have come out and said “we’re still carefully refining our technology but are beginning implementation using a combination and new and proven processes” and I suspect they would have been fine.

So, this all leaves me with some troubling questions. As developers of technology leave their musty basements and dark laboratories and increasingly compete in the arena of highly polished videos and soaring narratives, what is our collective responsibility to openly, honestly and candidly talk about risks and challenges in the same breath as we talk about opportunities and potential?

I suspect in today’s market, where startups are competing for money, talent and mindshare, you have no choice but to put this sort of spin on any technology and assume that the investors and general public will understand the “caveat emptor” nature of the beast. If you were to honestly share the challenges and risks that remain, you’d stick out like a sore thumb, lose your funding and look foolish compared to all the glowing testimonials on emerging tech that make it look like they’re ready for deployment tomorrow.

That being said, this behavior makes me uneasy and a bit annoyed.