Any color, as long as it’s black

WEFTEC Exhibition Floor

WEFTEC Exhibition Floor

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition and Conference 2015 (WEFTEC) down in Chicago for a day. As this was the first professional conference I have ever attended, I was looking forward to the experience and learning about the latest and greatest in Water Technology. WEFTEC is North America’s largest convention for water professionals, and I was immediately impressed (and overwhelmed) by the size of the exhibition floor (although I was later told that this year’s conference appeared smaller than last year’s). There were vendors from all over the world – China, South Korea, Germany, France, Norway. There were even areas where teams competed in events such rescuing a dummy worker in a confined space, or patching up a 6 inch pipe. To someone not interested in the water profession, this sight would be slightly comical, if not boring, but to a newly-minted engineer like myself, the sight was overwhelming.

While some companies offered niche products with proprietary technologies, many companies were competing in the same market area – mostly valves and measuring instruments. If I hadn’t recognized some of the vendors due to having purchased some of their products during work, I would have no idea where to begin, or what differentiated one vendor’s products from another. From my perspective, all their valves follow the same basic design. Only after talking to the representatives of each company did I begin to realize the differences between each product. It’s the “little” things, like ease of maintenance, or ability to store calibration data portably, or manufacturing methods, that become the “big” things that make each product stand out from its competitors. Yet in the grand scheme of things, many of these vendors were competition to sell similar products. All these companies depend on long-standing relationships with buyers, and tout their years of experience in the field. In such an environment, it seems extremely difficult for any novel technologies or products from new companies to ever enter the market.

For the consumer technology sector, the time to develop and sell products is relatively quick, just look at how often iPhones are upgraded. But in the infrastructure realm, it can take years, if not decades for a new technology to become accepted, used, and eventually become an essential part of the system. It’s understandable, since if something goes wrong with public infrastructure, a lot of lives are at risk, and with industrial infrastructure such as wastewater treatment, companies don’t want to spend any more than they have to pass environmental regulations. Either way, the end result is that whatever you include in your design, it has to work reliably and as intended, which means it usually has to be something that was done before. The Healthcare industry runs into similar problems, as new products must go through rigorous testing before hitting the shelves. But from my perspective, since there are established steps a healthcare product must go through, as long as the product passes each test, it’s guaranteed to hit the shelves and be used. For new water technologies – that’s not always the case. From my conversations with water professionals and entrepreneurs, it’s very difficult for a new technology to be implemented, let alone be accepted. The route to acceptance requires a well-established company to be willing to take in the new technology and build a pilot system – and that requires a client willing to take a gamble on something that has never been proven to work on a larger scale before. Even if a new technology reaches the pilot stage, it may take a long time for that technology to be widely distributed and accepted – if at all – as many other companies would prefer to stick with what they know. The years of working with a certain vendor has created a relationship of trust and reliability, which means it’s up to the vendor to promote a new product well enough to convince his/her customer base to adopt it. Often, newer technologies aren’t necessarily innovative, but iterative – consisting of just minor changes to established processes. While these technologies are more easily adopted, it can also result in a whole slew of technologies that differ only slightly with minimal additional impact.

Change can be difficult to accept, and requires a lot more work than simply going with what’s been established before. But if the change is positive, then the resulting effort and outcome should outweigh any of the additional effort required. Usually, such change has to come from the top, from someone who has the power to make that leap into the unknown, and effectively drag everyone else with him or her. And sometimes, there isn’t always a “better” choice, and  one will get similar results at similar prices, so the choice just comes down to “well, we’ve always used this, so let’s keep using this.” The difference between knowing what is a impactful change, and one that requires more effort than the benefit received, is difficult to determine until you start walking down that path. In a world where there are so many choices and people are competing for each and every decision, when do the choices actually prevent the goal from being completed, rather than contributing to the goal?

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