This article was originally published on IndustryWeek’s IdeaXchange blog, December 1st 2016.
Change is always met with resistance. And some groups or industries resist more than others.
Manufacturers, on the whole, have been slow to embrace smart manufacturing. When an industry is based on heavy investment in capital equipment, it’s not only more difficult to change, it builds a culture of higher resistance to change. If you’re reading this, I expect you are not an authority on dumb manufacturing. But many of your colleagues are.
As I described in this blog, Does your MES belong in the cloud?, a century ago, door-to-door sales agents offering third-party power services were being laughed out of manufacturing plants. “How could we not generate our own power?” managers said. “It’s critical to operations!”
Spring forward to 15 years ago, when I was helping a CIO scope out his needs for a new plant:
Charles: You’ll need a computer network for your machines and equipment.
CIO: Why? What’s the ROI on that?
Charles: You’re building a new plant … will you have a phone system?
CIO: Of course!
Charles: What’s the ROI on that?
CIO: We don’t need an ROI on that. People have to communicate.
Charles: And now? So do machines. And they have to talk to people.
It’s how change works. What seems at first to be ridiculous, unwieldy or unthinkable over time becomes obligatory. And as I write, being a dumb manufacturer is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Note please the use of the word “dumb!” Its original meaning was “unable to speak…”
Let’s Define Dumb Manufacturing
Dumb manufacturing relies on human mastery. It lives and operates through the knowledge, skill and intuition held in the heads of a few individuals. It’s based more on artistry than on science. More on the senses than on numbers.
In the paper plants I worked in as a young engineer, the foremen would taste the wood pulp to see if the composition was right. They’d also hit the paper rolls with baseball bats–the bounce and feel would tell them if the settings were right.
Manufacturing plants were once full of operators who used taste, sight, sound and smell to see if the printing presses were operating properly, the pie filling was sweet enough, or the piano keyboard was properly glued. In a similar way, traditional farmers would taste not just the crop, but the soil.
You can produce beautiful, high-quality products with dumb manufacturing.
But its Achilles’ heel is that it is human-bound–bound by the knowledge, skill and intuition held in the heads of a few humans – leading to these risks:
- Reliance on people rather than systems or processes. When those people leave, their shoes are hard to fill. Not to mention, how do we transfer that knowledge to new employees?
- Finite capacity to improve–humans have limited ability to absorb, store, process and share data.
- Ongoing division between the physical plant and the information world, and often between leadership and plant operators/management.
Smart Manufacturing Lives on Data and Measurement
Smart manufacturing uses data to analyze and measure. And you can’t improve–or control–what you don’t measure. You’re back to being reliant on the batter-tasters and baseball-batters.
What’s more, the more complex your process is, the more difficult it is to optimize without data analysis. It’s also near impossible to change it in real time to meet changing requirements or circumstances.
Going back to the people issue, smart manufacturing puts intelligence in the system, rather than only the people. With smart manufacturing, the machines tell us what to do. Hiring and training is easier, errors fall, consistency rises. Operator-scheduling is simplified, because the amount of experience required to carry each role decreases.
It’s a paradigm change–quantum not incremental
Many industry segments in manufacturing still operate in a similar manner as they did in the last century. But moving to smart manufacturing is not an incremental change–it’s a quantum leap. So the players that decide to move ahead have a quantum competitive advantage. Not only that, they have an advantage that continues to grow in breadth, year by year.
We’re seeing the same pattern in every industry. Century-old newspapers have gone under or are struggling, unable to meet pure digital competition. The music industry is in a constant state of uproar. Telecom is a flat-out dogfight.
So the days of the dumb manufacturer are fast receding. Fortunately, today’s wealth of choice in smart manufacturing platforms, their scalability, and the affordability of sensors adaptable to older equipment has made the move to smart available to all.