Stressed-out birb in a factory

Time for industry to burst the bubble on buzzwords

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Manufacturing leaders shouldn’t let the frenzy around technology’s next big things deter them from exploring the real benefits that innovation can offer.

I’m rapidly approaching the end of my third decade in the enterprise B2B technology sector, an industry that has become a grand master in spin. It has gorged on the creation and promotion of acronyms, buzzwords and hyperbole that power the industry’s marketing machine. In many cases it’s an attempt to differentiate between mediocre technology in an overly crowded market or to position a solution as solving a business problem that no one knew existed.

It’s a perpetual-motion machine in which newcomers rapidly learn the lingo and the trend continues unabated. It is not exclusive to the IT industry, but a human condition that has plagued us for generations. As a new buzzword reaches peak ubiquity, the noise dies away and gets replaced by a new wave, but on some occasions it reaches breaking point and a major fracture emerges, like the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s.

I wasn’t at all surprised to read the results of several industrial and manufacturing management surveys, in which many said that frenzy around industrial technology buzzwords has little practical value to their organisations – dismissing it as industry hype. When reading phrases like ‘hyper automation’ (while rolling our eyes), we can certainly empathise with this view.

Consider this example: “To drive strategic transformation and enable manufacturers to transcend current limits of efficiency, productivity and agility, those of tomorrow must develop the cognitive factory of the future today. This will be created by weaving a fabric of powerful, intelligent and interconnected technologies across the operational landscape, both at the edge and in the cloud, which will blur the boundary between cyber-physical systems by the symbiosis of advanced fifth-generation networks, Everything-as-a-Service cloud computing models, big data lakes created by Internet of Things real-time data streams, which in turn feed an array of intelligent agents using advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms powered by quantum computers. The workforce of the future will undergo reconstructive surgery by using quantum nanotechnology implants to make super-intelligent cyborgs.”

OK, I made that last bit up. But apart from that, this paragraph wouldn’t be out of place in a business journal, thought leadership piece or even a digital strategy consultation. However, despite the tortuous language, we must be careful that we don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. There are fundamental realities impacting manufacturers that should not be ignored.

Consumption of physical products is changing, with consumers becoming more conscious – financially, ethically and environmentally. Thrifty is becoming trendy and millennials want to up-cycle and recycle, expecting better, faster, cheaper products more unique to their own tastes, needs and wants while offering an experience.

The online world enables consumers to communicate with millions through social media and platforms where we can like, rate, review, recommend or criticise brands. Meanwhile, markets are becoming liberalised, providing the modern consumer with an array of e-commerce tools that allow them to compare price, quality and performance. Finally, the transformation of global logistics is enabling highly competitive global markets to emerge.

These trends are undoubtedly changing the nature of design and production, and to successfully respond manufacturers need to concentrate their efforts on three key areas: cost, value and risk. Unfortunately, optimising manufacturing operations across these core dimensions is simply not possible using outdated manual processes.

Buzzwords and hype aside, there are several emerging and maturing industrial information technologies that are already delivering proven business value and return on investment. If manufacturers delay or fail to investigate the practical implications, then as their consumer markets evolve and their peers continue to raise the bar, they will be forced to play catch-up. Manufacturing leaders should not be put off by trending phrases or terminology but investigate the underlying core concepts and technologies for the tangible benefits that they provide.

Manufacturers don’t need to be at the bleeding edge of innovation; they can implement small-scale pilots to demonstrate value directly in the context of their unique organisations. You don’t need to move to Industry 4.0, build a smart factory, embark on a digital transformation or any buzzword-driven initiative. You simply need to understand, investigate and deploy available and proven technologies that can improve the efficacy of your operations, regardless of what badge the technology goes under.

Finally, a confession. As mentioned, I’ve spent almost three decades in this industry and when you live in a land for so long, you can’t help but speak like a native!

Jason Chester is director of global channel programs with InfintyQS, a provider of statistical process control software and services

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