Innovations and Opportunities

Last week, I stumbled upon a fascinating article suggesting the best way to board an airplane is not from back to front as commonsense might suggest. Instead, the most efficient method is to allow passengers to board 10 at a time in every other row. The advantage of this innovative approach is that people are able to load their luggage more quickly -- thus alleviating the largest source of time congestion in boarding a plane.

The study might seem inconsequential, but I'd like to suggest otherwise. If passengers can board more quickly, not only are they happier (which is something that I would think, but am not always sure, airlines desire), but quicker boarding might allow airlines to either schedule additional daily flights on some of the more popular routes or reduce the number of gates that an airline requires. Although, this might not have a material impact on the profits of airlines, it could improve the customer experience for passengers on Southwest (NYSE: LUV  ) and JetBlue (Nasdaq: JBLU  ) .

On a broader level, the finding points to how even more mature industries can perform old activities in new and innovative ways.

Squeezing more oil from corn
For example, this month, agricultural scientists at DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) identified a key gene that determines oil yield in corn. According to the research, the gene could boost the yield of oil and oleic acid by 41% and 107%, respectively.

The former could be a boon to the rapidly growing biofuels industry and might lead to a sizeable increase in profit for a company such as BP (NYSE: BP  ) , which is already working with DuPont to produce new biofuels. On the other hand, the production of oleic acid -- the valuable edible fat in corn -- could be a windfall to a company like Archer Daniels Midland.

Feeling small?
It has been said that the best gifts come in small packages. If so, then IBM's (NYSE: IBM  ) news this week that its researchers have figured out how to measure the amount of force needed to move an atom could have big implications for the semiconductor and data storage industries.

This is because both industries are in a never-ending quest to develop nanoscale devices, including computer chips and atomic-level storage. To this end, Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) is already constructing processors at the 45-nanometer level, and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) is viewing atomic storage as viable future technology for data storage.

To succeed in these ventures, it will help greatly to understand how much force is required to move and store individual atoms, and this latest breakthrough from Big Blue might be just the thing to push the semiconductor and data storage industries to the next level.

Foolish bottom line
Whether it's boarding an airplane, growing corn, or building a new computer processor, advances in computer modeling, genomics, and nanotechnology, as well as a host of other fields -- including robotics, RFID, and rapid prototype manufacturing -- are all poised to transform the business and investing landscape.

My advice: Don't just look for "the next big thing." Instead, concentrate on how more modest advances in technology can lead to more immediate process improvements or increases in performance. Both can quickly transfer to a company's bottom line.


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