How equipment testing can drive technological gains
They say necessity is the mother of invention - it's the idea that technological breakthroughs occur most frequently because of some glaring need or shortcoming. In reality, there are certainly instances where technology didn't serve a need, but instead offered a convenience - no one realized we needed a blanket with arms until someone invented the Snuggie, after all. But in many cases, necessity isn't decided by social or industrial conditions, but rather through regulatory compulsion. In other words, compliance standards can be the driver for technological advancement. Let's examine a few scenarios for which standards play the role of the mother of invention:
The auto industry
American roads are still full of older automobile models that get somewhere south of 30 miles to the gallon and spew out CO2 as exhaust. But increasingly among those vehicles are ones that don't feature internal combustion engines at all, while in between are hybrid vehicles that take a combination of gasoline and electricity and average closer to 50 miles to the gallon. So what happened? Did the automobile industry collectively decide to start producing more efficient cars that take less gas - or none at all? Not likely.
Behind the scenes lies a set of standards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that set aggressive fuel economy goals for the average car and light truck on the road in 2025. By that point, the average vehicle on the road will have a fuel economy of 54.5 miles to the gallon - or 19 mpg more than the current average. The increase will reduce emissions, save money at the gas pump and push automotive technology further, according to the White House press release from the initiative's 2012 announcement.
There are plenty of incentives for the automakers to shoot for that target, including those set by the federal government and those endemic to improving technology - the manufacturers who stand pat will be left behind by their peers, forcing every group to vie for the cutting edge. In that way, the regulations are merely the spark that drives competition, which is what keeps innovation going.
In creating, testing and sending new drugs to market, pharmaceutical companies must pass through a bevy of compliance standards that govern everything from materials used and testing conditions to pre-market and post-market assessments of effectiveness. At first glance, it may seem that all this red tape would stifle innovation - indeed, when new regulations emerge, industry innovation suffers. But according to several studies conducted in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, creativity and innovation within the field rebounds within a few years. The reason may be that pharmaceutical companies have an adjustment period in which they are uncertain of the regulatory oversight and how to meet new standards, but once that transition happens, they are able to operate more efficiently.
Moreover, with entities like the Food and Drug Administration, the goal is to produce safe drugs, first and foremost, and effective drugs as a close second. These products affect people's well-being, so it is tolerable if increased regulation lengthens the path to market. However, with greater oversight also comes greater certainty of success, the ability to price a drug at a higher point and increased stakes when the drug fails to meet standards. In industries like this, regulations serve to prevent manufacturers from cutting corners - and in the process, finding long-term, effective solutions.
What happens when an industry is unregulated - that is, a government or industrial agency doesn't require products to meet specific, enforced standards? There are many industries for which that is the case, but a shared sense of expectation and desire to provide quality products still compels manufacturers to adhere to best practices. Though nothing will legally stop a playground equipment provider from distributing unsafe athletic turf, consumer expectations and demands - in other words, the market - will drive that manufacturer to do better.
This industry may hardly seem highly technical, but consider the playground surfaces you had growing up compared to those supporting today's children. Now, foam, rubber and other synthetic materials are durable, tough, responsive and giving under the right conditions. These materials react differently to different types of impact. Every time a young athlete sustains an injury, we call the surface material into question - not just the turf but the helmets, kneepads and so on. As the market demands better-performing equipment, the manufacturers that respond will gain the most business. Hence, market expectations - a form of regulation - drives innovation here, too.
It's important to note that many innovators don't need regulation to get their ideas off the ground, and sometimes regulations can be an obstacle for a new product - notably, pharmaceuticals - to get to market. But regulations require better testing and creative thinking - manufacturers would be well-served to partner with an accredited, third-party certification provider to best tackle new standards and get innovative products to market effectively.