The last three decades has been dominated by developments in software technology. With technologies such as cloud computing, big data, analytics and networking taking the center stage of technological innovations it seems that hardware had been shoved to the backstage.
The internet and ironically, developments in computer hardware such as integrated circuits and microchips brought with it great leaps in software innovations. This is why up to ten of the world’s most valuable companies today are in one way or another software dependent.
However recent years have seen a re-emergence of hardware technologies. Companies like Tesla, SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin attest to this rebirth. These are corporations built in industries that had long lagged behind software industries in terms of innovation and most importantly revenue.
Combination of technologies
It is however noteworthy that these new hardware-based startups did not particularly re-invent the wheel so to speak or even come up with radically new products that were not originally present in the market. Rather they are finding new ways to use today’s technology to re-invent already established industries.
Garrett Winther on Techcrunch says: “Affordable robotics, AI-driven sensor fusion, uninterrupted connectivity and supermaterials are merging into the technology stack to unlock massive new tranches of value for customers. Many HAX companies are operating 80%+ gross margin businesses that not long ago industry experts said only SaaS companies could achieve. Even more, the hardware plus software combination can tackle more significant problems across industries than software alone ever could.”
Moreover, while software has definitely taken great leaps in the last few decades there have also been significant developments in hardware technology. There have been key developments in areas such as nanotechnology, manufacturing and 3D printing.
Take Tesla for instance. Many have tried to attribute the automaker’s success to their ‘software-led approach.’ They however fail to recognize the great work Tesla has done in advancing hardware innovation in motors, batteries, distribution models and manufacturing.
This is not to say that software has played no role in the re-emergence of ‘hard-tech.’ On the contrary, it is through software that hardware companies have been able to re-imagine their models of manufacturing and even distribution.
3D printing for instance is completely revolutionizing manufacturing. Where in the past design, prototyping and manufacturing were separated by departments and sometimes even by geographical regions, today all that can be done under one roof. One can for instance use design software like AutoCAD to design a product then send it to 3D printer for quick prototyping.
Tooling hard-tech startups is getting easier and faster. Thanks to the rapid drop in price of 3D printers from $20,000 to $200 coupled with cheaper and more efficient supply lines. It is now possible for these startups to expedite the early stages of design and prototyping while also manufacturing and distributing at a much lower price.
China’s hardware focused development model has been key to this revolution. Today the country is known as the ‘world’s factory’ with integrated supply lines and cheap labor that has made everything from printed circuit boards to vehicle engines much faster and cheaper to design and order.
This has been made possible by Shenzhen, commonly referred to as Silicon Valley in hardware.
Moreover, the global shift to renewable energy is powering a new wave of hardware startups intent on solving climate change. Startups like Seppure, Green Li-Ion and Unspun are some examples.
The combined hardware and software technologies are sure to power new products that software alone could not achieve.