This article was originally published on IndustryWeek’s IdeaXchange blog, May 29, 2018. Authored by Charles Horth.
Not that long ago, the big barrier to technological innovation on the manufacturing floor was part of what many of us called “the system.” The RAM. Or the CPU. Or the storage. Remember? Consultants and corporate leaders clamoured for more memory. We needed more speed. We needed more data and disk space.
Not so today. We have incredible speeds, oceans of memory, and far more data than we know what to do with. A near-infinite availability of interconnected technologies, devices, hardware and software. The machines aren’t really the problem.
The obstacle now is the people. Or rather, their lack of the right training, education and preparation for the major paradigm shifts in technology, big data, networks and automation that we are seeing.
Kaboom – there go the silos
Education is by definition predictive. Led by academics and industry, we prepare people today for what they will be doing tomorrow when they leave school and join the workforce.
This worked pretty well if you were an engineering student, say, in the 1970s. You came out well-prepared to grind away at problems in a silo, alongside others doing the same, as generations of your ilk had done before you. Together but separate, you contributed to power plants, paint, prostheses, bridges, highways, sewage systems, control systems, dishwashers, drugs, food, and a whole lot more.
The internet chipped away at technical human silos in manufacturing, to some extent by destroying the old lines of communication. Rather than having communication travel up and down hierarchically, through approved, proper management channels, it became everyone-and-everywhere enabled. We could all talk to each other, and to a much greater extent, we did.
The paradigm shift is that silo work no longer delivers enough value, because cooperative work can accomplish so much more.
As an example, think of installing a door handle in an old-style automotive plant. On that iconic 20th century material shop floor that everyone came to know through textbooks, magazines and movies, each task is broken-down, repetitive, and unchanging.
But today’s information shop floor is fluid and dynamic in nature, not discrete. No such task breakdown can easily exist. The nature of the task is ever-changing and must be aligned with the material shop floor, which also evolves.
The key is cooperation
What’s the key to success in this digital twin plant, this ever-changing organism that meshes the physical/material and virtual/information worlds? Human cooperation.
To compete in hyper-competitive markets and the realities of paper-thin-margins, manufacturing departments are now pushed to build fluid lines of communication with sales, customer service, finance and other aspects of the business. The old ways were cumbersome, rigid, and moved too slowly, awaiting too many approvals.
The new way is an ever-reinforcing and dynamic cycle. Today’s latest dreams and designs require a connected, non-silo work style to be brought into being.
In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Ron Ashkenas provides an illustration of how dysfunction and weak performance creeps into the manufacturing process. He illustrates the typical scenario of how today’s program manager routinely coordinates shop-floor matters like workflow, scheduling, conflicting priorities and other major issues with leaders from various departments. With numerous layers of command and silos, it’s a daunting challenge to bring these units together when needed. As a result, key decisions are delayed or not executed at all.