Changing Behaviors--the Final Frontier

Turning Point

I’m a big “Star Trek” fan. I’ve followed the adventures of the Enterprise since its debut in 1966. Through various iterations, the Starship, its captains and spin offs of the franchise, I’ve always enjoyed Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.

Many things that “Star Trek” originally presented as fantastic have, through the years, come true. Science fiction becomes science fact. Kirk’s communicator, for example, is, in effect, the ubiquitous cell phone. The replicator has morphed into the 3D printer, which is helping industry manufacture things that were thought impossible not that long ago. The android, Data, showed us artificial life forms, and now the robotics industry is bringing out collaborative robots (cobots) using sophisticated sensor technology that allows the machines to work with people without the need for guarding.

It amazes me in my lifetime how easily we have adapted to not only the changes that technology has brought into our lives, but acceptance of the rate of change. Technology product life cycles have shortened in many cases to a point where when we get our hands on something new, it’s already obsolete.

Manufacturing is certainly not immune to these advances. There was a time when a shop could set up its cam-actuated multi-spindle or other screw machines to run off a million or two of a given part, then rather than reset the machine, simply let it sit until the same part is reordered. Today, in part because of shorter product life cycles, volumes are smaller, and flexible machines that can be quickly set up to run higher mix jobs are needed. Likewise, the kinds of employees needed in manufacturing has dramatically changed. Machine builders are making front ends for CNCs that emulate iPhones, iPads and other interfaces more. These interfaces are comfortable to younger people in hopes of attracting them to work on the shop floor. 

We are in an age of widgets and gadgets that make our lives amazingly interconnected, and yet paradoxically, we are in some ways more isolated from each other than ever before. I see this with my kids and how they interact with their kids. Often, the parents are face down in their iPhone while the children are interacting with a device that is geared toward them. Real conversation isn’t dead yet, but some of the trends are a bit disturbing. 

A colleague of mine describes this phenomenon as the “heads-down” generation. I read there are even efforts afoot in some urban areas to make distracted walking a finable misdemeanor. It seems that people are blithely stepping out into traffic and in some cases getting run over because of their total absorption in these devices. I think these behaviors will reach a point of equilibrium or the new normal as time goes on, but it will be a process that takes time.   

I don’t see this generation thing as age based. It really is more about behavior. We were recently at a function in Chicago, and a longtime colleague—a baby boomer—came rolling into the conference with his head bandaged. Walking distracted, he face planted into a traffic sign. The result was a broken jaw and 16 stitches. As the ads say and my busted up friend now agrees with, it really can wait.

Many of us have experienced “the next big thing” through the years. If the futurists are to be believed, there are only four big things over the last two centuries, at least as they relate to manufacturing. We’re reading more and more about Industry 4.0 (the Industrial Internet of Things), and that we are on the verge of a fourth industrial revolution. But it’s only the fourth.

So the question becomes when. “Star Trek” occurs in the 23rd century. I don’t think Industry 4.0 will take that long. When it comes to current manifestations of future trends, I think of autonomous cars, automatic braking systems, automatic parallel parking, and it makes me wonder why we don’t simply train drivers better.

One of my favorite lines from “Star Trek” came from the movie “The Undiscovered Country.” The president of the Federation said it to some of its members. Staring out from his blue-tinted Ben Franklin glasses, he says, “Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we must do that thing.”

I listened to a 2005 interview on NPR with the late author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He was advocating that the president should make a cabinet-level appointment called the Secretary of the Future. That might be a position that makes sense for companies as well to help guide our decisions surrounding the technologies we pursue.