Fake news isn’t always political! How real are your numbers?

All over the media, we regularly hear the word fake applied to news and information. Particularly in the political sphere.

Today, I want to talk about how fake news creeps into the world of manufacturing. And the rabbit-holes it can lead us down.

What is measurement, really? What do those terms mean (pun!)?

Even a calculation as simple as an average can be misinterpreted. There’s the mean: sum of values divided by number of values. But the median is also called the average, and can be at least as meaningful. Then there’s the weighted average, which … my point being, measurements can lead to misunderstandings.

In manufacturing we also talk about accuracy – how close a value is to true. And precision – how close to the mean.

Plus, uncertainty! You might see that in a drinking water analysis, illustrated by the +/-. That’s the degree of uncertainty.

If you’re measuring a tabletop with a ruler whose smallest marking is a ¼-inch? Then a 1/8-inch is your degree of uncertainty, you could be off by as much as a 1/8-inch.

To put it another way, if you’re dieting, you might weigh your serving of mashed potatoes on a kitchen scale. But you wouldn’t put it on the passenger seat of your Mack truck, head to a truckway stop for a measurement, and subtract the weight of you and the truck, in order to learn that your serving weighs 4.6 ounces, +/- 100 pounds.

No precision can be greater than the precision of the process. More on this one in a moment.

Watch out for those decimal places

Decimal places are the perfect breeding place for fake news. They can imply a precision that may not exist. Let’s talk about an example you’re likely to have seen many times.

Say we have a continuous process measured in gallons per minute. The flow meter has a stated precision of +/- 10 gallons per minute – and hasn’t been calibrated since installed. A waste stream is measured, once a shift, by a field tech with a five-gallon bucket and a stopwatch. Sound familiar?

Originally the waste report for this was a manual affair. In our example, let’s say the average was 5 gallons waste per ton of process for both shifts.

But now, a new MES has been implemented. And all values are reported to three decimal places. Note – no change to the measuring process or devices.

So, the new report averages 5.123 for shift A and 5.008 for shift B. Uh oh. Shift A is underperforming. Costing us profit. What to do?

Not so fast! Where is this new-found precision coming from? The MES doesn’t supply it. The flow meter hasn’t changed. The field tech hasn’t suddenly gained Superman vision.

In fact, analytically, nothing has changed. The uncertainty is still at best +/- 10 gallons at the flow meter, and some unknown amount with the field tech.

But Company XYZ has just spent a lot of money on their implementation. They need to show a return on the investment. The new report seems to show a way to do so. They may dive on this ‘information,’ eager to address the new issue.

But it’s not real. It’s fake precision. Paving the way for misguided decisions and actions.

Precision can be increased only by upgrading the precision of your measurements

For greater precision, you need more precise measurement.

Unfortunately, that requires more investment. In the field, there’s a general unawareness of how precision is arrived at. At Factora, we often find ourselves explaining that the next step may be to address the measuring process, rather than haring off after a calculation that looks more meaningful than it is. As partners and integrators, our role is to present data with the correct degree of uncertainty.

As just one recent example, here’s a story from one of our programmers. He originally used a customer-supplied data type in a calculation, and ended up with a result of “300 lb/hour over the course of a day.” But he quickly realized that the measuring process wasn’t precise enough to supply a lb/hour figure. The highest possible precision was in 100-lbs per day. The “300 lb/hour” was fake news.


How do you prevent the spread of fake precision? Beware of any measurement you are presented with that’s being used to justify a course of action.

Where did the numbers come from? From what process? From what tools?

You’ll save yourself any number of rabbit-hole dives.