This subject is one of those things that drives me nuts. We could build homes that stand up to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and other natural and human-made disasters. We could build cars that are lighter and more fuel-efficient.
Like the opening for the old TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” we have the technology. So why don’t we use it? The reason is that people who build homes, cars, and other things would need to be retrained — but the result would be a more sustainable and safer world. This thought was going through my head when I was being briefed by Arris Composites last week.
Arris is a small company backed by one of the more powerful VCs that figured out how to do composites at scale cheaply. Its technology could make cars safer, more fuel-efficient, and far more resistant to accidents. It could make homes nearly indestructible. Its tech could even do amazing things for the aircraft industry, which, with planes like the Boeing Dreamliner, has already moved to composites.
So why isn’t the Arris a household name? Why are we still doing things the old fashioned way? Let’s explore that this week, and I’ll close with my product of the week, the new Surface Laptop Go from Microsoft.
The House of the Future
My first full-time job was at Disneyland in Anaheim, and one of my favorite attractions was the Monsanto House of the Future, which was in the park from 1957 to 1967.
It was built from composites and had several forward-looking features. Those included a robotic vacuum cleaner, a centralized smart-home-like lighting control function that could also control the zoned climate system, a video phone, a music distribution system, and some of the ugliest avocado green appliances ever made.
What stuck with me was air conditioning system because, not only did it have an air purifier, you could change the scent of the home from pine, to sea, to flower, to fresh-cut leaves. I still wonder why no one productized that feature because often our homes, especially when we have to close them up due to the forest fire smoke, smell stale.
The House of the Future was built up around 10 feet off the ground, making it more likely to survive a flood. Its shell was built in a factory out of fiberglass composite. This fact stuck with me because I was there when they tried to tear the house down. The demolition team had a giant wrecking ball, and after removing the windows, they took a tremendous whack at the house, and that ball bounced. It bounced a lot. I’m still surprised the crane didn’t tip over.
The crew hit it again and again and again. It was almost as if the house was laughing at them. Instead of a one-day demolition, it took days of trying wrecking balls, torches, chainsaws and jackhammers. Finally, they figured out they had to crush the home with chains to dismantle it.
As we look at the devastation that has been caused by fires, hurricanes, and tornados, wouldn’t a house built from composites that were far more resistant to these calamaties be preferable to what we have today?
Now consider this, that House of the Future was built using technology that was cutting edge in 1957. Here we are, more than 60 years later. We still don’t build houses that well — and composites have come a long way since 1957.
Composites in 2020
If there was ever a material to deal with the world we have in 2020; it is a modern composite. You see, composites are used heavily now in high-end supercars. It isn’t unusual to see carbon fiber used in the most expensive automobiles — and where every pound counts, they are increasingly used in commercial planes to cut down on weight and fuel costs.
Until recently, composites, while often stronger and lighter than metals, have been wicked expensive. However, Arris Composites’ claim to fame is that it has come up with a process that doesn’t carry the massive cost disadvantage, yet still outperforms metals with similar strength, like titanium, but with up to a 70 percent weight savings.
Can you imagine a home of the present built with this stuff? It’s lightweight and flexible, but not brittle, so you don’t get as much of the pendulum effect during earthquakes; and it will take far more lateral movement than traditionally built wood houses. Also, being lightweight makes it easier to transport, so you could build the home’s parts in a factory and assemble them on site. Imagine this being used for house trailers. Not only would those trailers hold up better in high winds, but the weight savings would make them less expensive to transport.
There is a company called Blu Homes that builds houses like this. It uses aircraft building techniques, but tends to use metals instead of composites. Even so, these homes are built to withstand forces that would destroy a wood home. Imagine what these folks could do if they built with composites instead of metal. Even though these houses are incredibly advanced and durable, they aren’t that much more expensive. A 2,140 square foot house costs US$545K, and it’s both smart and incredibly efficient. They’ve also gotten a ton better looking over the years.
Now wouldn’t you rather have a car that shrugged off small collisions instead of having the vehicle totaled? If you’ve ever had an accident in a Tesla, because they use aluminum and a process that makes the car cheap to build but wicked expensive to repair, it doesn’t take a lot to total one out. If Tesla used composites, not only would the cars get better range, but they would also survive more accidents and likely be much easier to repair.
So Why Aren’t We Using Composites?
The big problem with any change is retraining and regulation. As noted, this process would best lend itself to prefabricated homes, which are often seen as cheap, Blu Homes being the exception. The amazing thing, though, is that a prefabricated home can go from pad to finished home in a matter of days, not months, and they can be assembled in weather that would be problematic for traditional home builders. Besides, regulations are outdated, often requiring modular homes have wheels so they can be classified as a trailer, which makes no sense.
When you have a massive disaster like a hurricane or fire that wipes out hundreds of homes, finding a builder that can rebuild yours may take years. Meanwhile, that same builder can assemble many prefabricated homes in the time it takes to build a traditional one from scratch. It is kind of amazing how fast these houses come together. A company called Boxabl makes folding houses that ship and unfold in two hours.
As noted, one of the big problems is the shipping cost for a modular home, but that again is where composites could make a huge difference.
Oh, and now we can build composites using 3D printers, so it won’t be long until we can print much of the home on-site, which could change the game.
It amazes me, given the sheer number of disasters we’ve had this year, that we aren’t looking at alternative materials and building methods to put now suddenly homeless people back in home; and not back in homes that will fail again in a few short years, but in homes that will survive the next disaster so that established communities don’t have to die.
Like “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV show, we have the technology to build homes and cars far more potent, far more quickly, and in a way that will result in far more efficiency, i.e. less pollution, less energy cost, etc. So why don’t we?
Oh, and if you just lost your home, check out some of the firms like Blu Home (I pick them because their process is the most advanced) because they could get you under a roof far faster than if you have to get on some builder’s now massively overbooked schedule.
The Surface Laptop Go
The Microsoft Surface line of products was created specifically to compete with Apple when there just wasn’t much innovation coming out of the PC OEMs. That has changed over the years, and now there are lines from HP, Dell, and Lenovo that match the Surface line’s quality with a similar price point. On the other hand, it is better positioned against a Chromebook, and I wonder if that is a mistake.
There are old brand examples of other companies trying to stretch products from the luxury into the economy space, like the Cadillac Cimarron, the Lincoln Versailles, Porsche 912 and 914, and Mazda Amati (the Amati went the other way). In all cases, the lower cost products’ efforts failed, as did the Mazda effort with the premium offering. Most PC and car makers now have separate lines between luxury and non-luxury products, like the Nissan and Infiniti.
The Surface Laptop Go feels well weighted at 2.45 pounds which is lighter than a MacBook Air. At $549, it starts a ton cheaper, but that is a stripper build which I don’t recommend, as it has, in my opinion, too little storage and not enough RAM. It may be sufficient for K-8, but I’d go with the $699 configuration (still way cheaper than a Macbook Air), with the extra 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage, plus the one-button power/fingerprint reader that is one of the coolest parts of this product. Another $200 doubles your storage, but honestly, with cloud storage like OneDrive, I don’t think you need it.
It has a magnetic charger, with which some reviewers are taking issue. But I once tripped over a chord and took out a $2K laptop that fell from a table onto a tile floor. That doesn’t happen with a magnetic charger. So, I’m good with that part of the solution. What’s more problematic is that the screen isn’t outdoor viewable, and the keyboard, for some reason, doesn’t light up. Neither is critical, and higher nit screens are typically on laptops over $1K, not under, and they take a toll on battery life — a significant toll.
Surface Laptop Go comes in three colors: Platinum, Sandstone, and my favorite, Ice Blue. It looks more expensive than it is, which is a nice touch.
Now, this is a 12-inch product, which means it is best for those that need a lot of portability and don’t have big hands. My hands are good-sized and I didn’t have an issue with the keyboard — but if your hands are large, try it before you buy it. For most women and kids however, this product should be fine.
The screen will lay flat, but it won’t fold over, so this isn’t a 2-in-1, but since most of us don’t use these things as big tablets, I doubt this will be a problem for most.
Another reason to get the $699 version is the cool power button fingerprint reader; and it does light up. So, in the end, this is a decent luxury looking value laptop that won’t break the bank at $699.
It isn’t a gaming box by any stretch of the imagination, but if you need a laptop that looks like it costs more than it does, and does a decent job of light-to-medium office and schoolwork, this could be the product for you — and the Surface Laptop Go is my product of the week.
Oh, and in hindsight, the Porsche 914 was one of my favorite cars. A mid-engine car for a little more than a VW bug, what wasn’t to love?