Hardware is hard but essential

Rohin Malhotra
6
Min read

Hardware is hard is a cliche, but often misses the point.

It is hard because iteration cycles often take longer and are more expensive. For software, what takes a day to resolve and push changes for a new prototype, takes weeks for hardware. Parts need to be manufactured, PCBs need to be fabricated and everything has to be brought together to work. Even the mighty Google thinks so. But we often miss understanding how essential it is. And there is no better time than the current pandemic to understand why.

Since the 90s, the internet has made the distribution of information instantaneous and almost free. Software has ridden the Internet wave and eaten the world. It has transformed industries, created new categories altogether, and changed the world in ways unimaginable. In the last 30 years of this information age, there have been multiple waves:

Waves in the information age

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Today the fuel that keeps global economies running is something that I call the Digital Infrastructure. It governs a major part of our lives. Some major pillars of this Digital Infrastructure are:

  1. Payments & Banking
  2. Entertainment
  3. E-Commerce
  4. Communication

And software is the plumbing that holds all of these together. This infrastructure has proven to be reliable and immune to natural disasters, social upheavals, political instability, economic recessions, and even health pandemics like the current COVID-19 crisis. During the pandemic, we hardly faced problems in making a bank transfer, watching the latest TV Series or video calling our friends and family in another country.

But the Digital Infrastructure has its limits. In the real world, software cannot actually move things around, treat and nourish people, generate energy, or manufacture goods. This is where the Physical Infrastructure comes into the picture. If you think back to the same 30 years, we haven’t made much progress in building better Physical Infrastructure as compared to Digital. And these vulnerabilities have been laid bare in the current pandemic.

Energy

It is the source to make everything happen on this planet. Without reliable and uninterrupted energy sources, even data centers and server farms that power our Digital Infrastructure would fail. Unfortunately, the world still runs on coal and oil. Even keeping the climatic effects of oil aside, the current energy scenario is highly vulnerable to shocks induced by political, economic, and natural calamities.

From coal, generating energy is a tedious process. After it is mined, it needs to be transported to the plant site where it is broken down into smaller pieces, gasified, used to heat water to generate steam and run turbines, processes that require active supervision and presence. Recently in India, mineworkers have rightfully been compared to no less than soldiers, risking their lives to keep the power plants running.

This doesn’t have to be so. Think of a large solar plant using sunlight as its natural fuel charging batteries which can then discharge power as required, supervised by smart SCADA grids. We haven’t invested enough in renewable sources or built power plants coupled with energy storage systems that are self-sustaining and resistant to any upheavals or shocks.

Transportation & Logistics

Though self-driving has got attention in the recent past, nothing much has changed in our transportation systems in the last 50 years. We might build many on-demand services for food, grocery, commerce, and cab-hailing but each of them have a physical end-point. And that is a human driver(mostly working in the gig economy without any form of employment benefits or social security) who completes the task.

Hyperloop under trial in India

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Maintenance and operation of our airports and train stations are still largely manual. There is a strong need to build more automated and efficient transportation and delivery systems.

Construction & Mining

Perhaps the sector which includes working in the most unsafe conditions is still completely manned by humans. More automated equipment that lets machines do the dirty work is the need of the hour.

We need heavy investment into methods and technologies to construct rapid housing in the time of need. A great example of such a technology is 3D Printing which is being explored to “print” houses during natural disasters. Still, a long way to go.

Manufacturing

You would probably think that today’s factories are smart and run by themselves. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. Most assembly lines are still operated by human labour slogging out long hours in poor working conditions.

In times of need, there can be an urgent requirement of health equipment, safety gear, essential goods, food consumables, etc. and hence it becomes imperative to decouple the operation of these centers of production from shocks and upheaval. If we want to shift to intelligent, adaptive, and just-in-time production systems, we need a paradigm change in how we design our future factories.

Food Preparation & Processing

An entire generation has grown up without knowing how to cook. Traditional kitchen appliances haven’t changed in the last 30 years and are ill-suited to the current generation’s needs.

Food preparation in cloud kitchens is still largely manual with large batches cooked at once and dispatched as orders come in. Both domestic and industrial cooking needs an overhaul in terms of cooking fresher and healthier food customized to user preferences.

Safety is another paramount issue especially for food processing and one where more automated equipment coupled with digital tracing can help. This point comes into the focus during the COVID crisis in the US where coronavirus hotspots were linked to meatpacking plants.

Healthcare

Modern software has enabled us to collect, maintain, and diagnose patient health data but if the treatment requires a major surgery or just a minor wound stitch, we require experienced doctors to take over. Lesser developed economies have a paucity of qualified medical personnel and large populations to cater to.

Primary caregiving, hospital sanitation, maintenance, and operation, elderly care are all activities better suited to and more efficiently done by machines than humans.

A view of a robotic operation theatre: Source - Cornell chronicle

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This article by the founder of an on-demand manufacturing service explains the new normal for healthcare where robots work in collaboration with their human trainers to add value.

The current crisis has exposed the frailties of our physical infrastructure and its inability to cope with change. We need to build resilient and autonomous physical infrastructure — which can run by itself without any major intervention required by humans.

Admittedly there are more $$ chasing fast-growing software companies than the makers of things, but the current situation should tell us that we can ignore them only to our peril. It is not that hardware companies cannot deliver returns on the $$ and if you need evidence you only need to look as far as Tesla’s valuation. Just that it requires a change in mindset.

Setting up relevant support systems and patient funding sources is the key. In a dog-eat-dog world, where speed is the measure of everything, understanding that hardware takes time is what needs to be empathized with. And when done right, there will be massive value creation for building better Physical Infrastructure.

People making things and creating new Physical Infrastructure need to be celebrated more for picking up hard problems and sticking their guts out for solving them.

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The current disaster is a wake-up call for us to shed our lethargy and discard our old notions about hardware. As Marc Andreessen of the a16z says, IT’S TIME TO BUILD.

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