Thinking beyond your frame of reference can provide new insights and lead to new ideas to improve manufacturing results. The manufacturing industry is being impacted by a complex and rapidly changing world. Manufacturing industries are realizing that low labor cost is not a winning strategy, and automation is fundamental to success. Automation professionals are in the best position to improve manufacturing results.
Fortunately, we have many new technologies that we can apply to respond to this changing environment, enabling operations improvement, higher efficiency, and greater productivity. The challenge is to reach beyond the current way of doing things and break out of thinking patterns that block new ideas. Being caught in old thinking has been described as being in a “velvet rut.” It is really comfortable to continue doing things in the same way, and it takes effort to climb out of the velvet rut. Doing so brings big gains in productivity that are needed for future success.
Automation professionals should be the catalyst for change by learning, qualifying, and applying new technology and ideas. The next task is educating management and others in the organization to motivate them to embrace new ideas so they are implemented. It takes courage to challenge institutional knowledge and traditions and explore unknown areas for innovation. These ideas are easy to state, but in practice it takes effort to think differently and learn about new technology and application methods while welcoming, not fearing, change. It is easy to focus only on problems and fixing them. The challenge is keeping things running today while gaining knowledge and applying it to build the future.
The need for change is to secure success in the future—or there may be a problematic future. For example, U.S. automakers got into a velvet rut of complacency by continuing to manufacture in the same ways, with the same technology that had been used for years, losing their first place position in the industry. In the 1980s, Japan applied new manufacturing methods and technology to become the largest automobile producer.
It has taken years for the U.S. manufacturers to catch up, and they are currently third by volume among the largest manufacturers in the world. Looking back at the success of competitors, many in the industry recognized they had everything needed to improve except the presence of mind to do it. They faced large opposition to change in their companies. In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen notes that when new technologies cause great firms to fail it is not that they did not see the future, but they discounted it as unimportant.
A major part of the next wave of technology to impact manufacturing is the developments resulting from Industry 4.0, Internet of Things (IoT), and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). These technologies look at manufacturing in a broader holistic way that integrates classical company silos to create more efficient manufacturing companies.
Major changes can be disruptive. It is more comfortable to make measured incremental changes that may be appropriate, but solely focusing on small changes can lead to missing revolutionary changes and cause disaster. Disruptive thinking is not about simply observing a revolutionary change in technology and methods, it is about successfully implementing disruptive change.
Every business needs to regularly rethink the habits that made it successful in the past, challenge them, and try new ideas to avoid becoming obsolete. Automation professionals are the people who can make a big contribution to keep companies vibrant and competitive.
Bill Lydon is chief editor of InTech magazine. Lydon has been active in manufacturing automation for more than 25 years. He started his career as a designer of computer-based machine tool controls; in other positions, he applied programmable logic controllers and process control technology. In addition to experience at various large companies, he co-founded and was president of a venture-capital-funded industrial automation software company. Lydon believes the success factors in manufacturing are changing, making it imperative to apply automation as a strategic tool to compete.
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A version of this article originally was published at InTech magazine.