Why The Web Matters To Business People

As one who has a keen interest in what PM publisher Gardner Publications does on the Internet, you might think I’m a raging fan of all things Web. I’m not.

As one who has a keen interest in what PM publisher Gardner Publications does on the Internet, you might think I’m a raging fan of all things Web. I’m not. I’ve only been to MySpace a few times out of professional curiosity and have no need to share my innermost feelings with perfect strangers. I prefer to do my chatting with friends and family face to face rather than in Facebook.  Sure, YouTube is fun, but how it’s worth $2 billion is beyond me.

It’s not that I begrudge individuals their fun, and there’s plenty of that to be found on the Web. But I look at the Web from the perspective of how it can serve busy manufacturing professionals with serious business needs. Sometimes all that Web 2.0 rhetoric gets in the way or at least confuses the issue of what truly provides value to the manufacturing community.

What I love about the Web, however, is the immediate access it provides to useful information that was impossible a decade ago. As a trade publisher, we have endeavored for more than 70 years to keep manufacturers updated on new technology in the pages of our magazines. That’s been good medicine for shops that want to stay ahead of the pack. But you’ve had to take it pretty much in the monthly increments that we delivered it. Now you can go to our site as well as other sources whenever there is a need. You literally can access a world of solutions right from your desktop, or laptop, if you prefer.
What still confounds many busy professionals, however, is finding the time to find information that is most relevant to them. Our Web manager, Andrea Albl, did some extensive research last year to discern how manufacturing managers go about finding new information they need to do their jobs. Different people have different preferences, of course, but what everybody seems to agree on is that they don’t have enough time to stay up on technology the way they should. Indeed, when they go into a research mode to solve a problem or they investigate new technology alternatives,  they can only steal a moment here and there from the hectic day to search for alternative sources of information.

Yet keeping up is more important than ever, and in some ways it’s more difficult than ever. I must confess that during the 1990s I began to think the pace of innovation in metalworking technology was starting to slow down. We were mostly seeing incremental improvements on technologies that had been around for years, and I worried about how maturing technology might spell more trouble for U.S. manufacturing. I’m worried far less today as new machines take on fundamentally new capabilities, bringing automation and combining processes in ways that were hardly imaginable a decade ago. No longer is highly sophisticated, multi-function CNC equipment only for the technologically elite. This technology is increasingly how North American shops are enhancing their competitiveness in the global market. As labor content of manufactured products continues to shrink, and supply chain issues grow increasingly critical, domestic manufacturers with vision are in a much better position than it appeared only a few years ago. 

The hitch is that technology is moving so fast again that it is hard to keep up. It’s not just the machines; it’s the tooling, the programming, the shop management issues that also must be world-class. Once, the secret to running a successful shop was mastery of known technologies. Today it is having the insight to anticipate changing customer needs and the agility to quickly apply new technological solutions as they emerge.

Lifelong learners are going to be the long-term winners in this environment, which brings us back to Web. While there is too much clutter in the way, the Web is still the most comprehensive and adaptable source of information that has ever been, and it’s going to get better. If you would have asked me 5 years ago for a metaphor for what the Web means to manufacturing people, I probably would have pointed to those dog-eared books and binders behind every engineer’s desk. The Web was like that collection of product, process and reference information on steroids. 

Today that characterization is insufficient. The Web is more important than just that, and its utilitarian impact will continue to grow. Now I have refined my earlier words about Web 2.0, because some of the things the kids are doing now will indeed become useful components for manufacturing professionals in the near future. Maybe we won’t be swapping our favorite songs, but we certainly will want quick access to knowledge wherever it resides and the ability to collaborate with other manufacturing people who deal with similar challenges on a daily basis.

The Web can do all that, and will. At Production Machining, we want to help the precision machining industry adapt faster, which is what the 2.0 version of our Web site is about. For more on that, see the article "Introducing The New ProductionMachining.com" in this issue.

This really is an exciting time to be in the machining business. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got a great shot at going the distance. My bet is that for most of you the Web will become an increasingly indispensable tool for getting there. 

About the author: Former Modern Machine Shop Editor Tom Beard is Gardner Publications’ director of content.