Technology Trials and Tribulations

As much as technology continues to advance, even far into the future people will remain a constant key in the success of manufacturing businesses.

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Shazam! A few key strokes plus Google and voila! Everything you ever need to know is right at your fingertips. Isn’t technology great?

The speed of change (thanks to the microprocessor) and the millennials’ natural-born talent to use today’s technology have changed the face of how we figure stuff out and who is figuring it out. It’s a good thing we have this knowledge at our fingertips; otherwise, how would we ever fill the knowledge gap that the generation leaving the work force has created?

So, are we done? Is manufacturing’s greatest challenge—the skill shortage—averted? Of course not. The much-discussed skills and knowledge gap in manufacturing today includes other elements. Understanding that there is a difference between knowledge, skill and mastery is an important first step.

Google will help a person gain knowledge. It will even demonstrate necessary skills with fancy “look at what I just did” videos. The magic formula that the boomers in manufacturing had (and we have tried hard to replicate) was that getting good at something required actually doing it, with both victories and failures. I remember in my tool and die maker training days being told, “If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough.” I also often heard, “If you do not have time to clean up after yourself, you are too slow.” Both are very physical examples of performance and risk that are still with me today.

Okay, so maybe that doesn’t apply today exactly the same way as it did a generation ago. So now what? In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, the 10,000 Hour Rule holds that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" are needed to become world-class in any field (well, maybe not any field, considering entrepreneurship and rock and roll, for instance, but certainly in a field with stable structures, such as manufacturing). Tim Ferriss discusses an opposing principle—the 4-Hour Work Week—stating “you can become world class in any skill in 6 months or less.” This idea may or may not be an exaggeration, but what is emphasized here is the quality of practice over the quantity. What’s missing here? Skill, training, mastery, or something else?

All of these points are important to know when dealing with today, or next week, or even next year. In other words, these are addressing the problem that we know about and the one that is with us right now. But there is another important step, and it has nothing to do with now or next year and everything to do with the more distant future.

We need to understand what manufacturing will be like 5 and 10 years from now. This will still be a time when most of us have plans to be making a living in manufacturing, at one level or another. Most businesses have a 5-year plan, but does that plan include a strategy based on the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), artificial consciousness or machine consciousness (AC or MC), additive manufacturing (AM) or any of the other rapidly emerging technologies in which we engage with computers as much as with each other? And what about the bio-revolution, when computers are able to see, understand and modify living things?

Exciting times are ahead; much will change, as has always been the case. The future is also filled with undeniable truths of the greatness we have needed, need today, and will continue to need. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos suggests a business strategy should be built around things that are known to be stable in time. "When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it," Mr. Bezos says. In the world of manufacturing trials and tribulations, having a plan to continually adapt to the speed of change and always invest in the people needed to get the job done will not change no matter what the future brings. Technology and people are the future of manufacturing.