I am rapidly approaching the end of my third decade working within the enterprise B2B technology sector and throughout my career I have been at the sharp end of 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 and include everything from the sublime to the ridiculous - even the completely bizarre. In many cases it is 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 is like a perpetual motion machine, as newcomers joining the industry soon learn the tradecraft lingo and the trend continues unabated. This is not a new phenomenon exclusive to the IT industry but a human condition that has plagued us for generations and the modern equivalent of a snake oil salesman. After a new buzzword reaches peak ubiquity, the noise dies away and gets replaced by a new fresh wave, but on other occasions the frenzy reaches a breaking point and a major fracture emerges, like the dot-com bubble of the early 2000’s.
So, I was not at all surprised when reading the results of several recent industrial and manufacturing management surveys, in which many attributed the current industry frenzy around [insert industry technology buzzword here] to have little practical value to their organisations - dismissing it as another wave of industry hype. When reading phrases like ‘hyper automation’ (while rolling our eyes and shaking our heads), we can certainly empathise with this view.
To drive strategic transformation of the sector 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 (EaaS) cloud computing models, big data lakes created by Internet of Things (IoT) real-time data streams, which in turn feed an array of intelligent agents using advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms powered by a new breed of quantum computers. Ambient and pervasive solutions will be deployed using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) delivery models that together will represent a paradigm-shift which will become known as ‘speed-of-thought manufacturing’. The workforce of the future will undergo reconstructive surgery by using quantum nanotechnology implants to create super-intelligent cyborg operators…ok, so I made that last bit up.
This previous paragraph would not have looked at all out of place in a business school journal, thought leadership piece or even a digital strategy consultation, and if we are led to believe it, the ‘factory of the future’ will only have two employees - a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog and the dog will be there to stop the man from touching the machines. However, despite the tortuous language often used, we must be careful that we do not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
There are fundamental and inescapable realities impacting manufacturers that cannot and should not be ignored:
Consumption of physical products is changing, with consumers becoming more conscious (financially, ethically and environmentally) and less loyal to brands. Thrifty is becoming trendy and millennials want to up-cycle, recycle and share, expecting better, faster, cheaper products more unique to their own tastes, needs and wants whilst offering an experience, not just a product.
The online world enables consumers to become influencers and to communicate with an audience of millions through social media and other platforms, where every consumer can like, rate, review, recommend, or even criticise brands that fail to live up to their expectations. Meanwhile, the markets in which they interact are becoming increasingly liberalised, providing the modern consumer with an array of Ecommerce tools at their fingertips allowing them to instantly compare price, quality and performance across numerous brands and suppliers. Finally, the transformation of global logistics is enabling highly competitive global markets to emerge across almost category of goods and services.
These trends are undoubtedly changing the nature of design and production and their impact will ripple across the entire supply chain. From bottles of carbonated soft drinks, high-end fashion accessories and even automobiles, there is almost no segment unaffected, and to successfully respond to these changing customer behaviours, manufacturers need to concentrate their efforts on three key areas: cost, value and risk. Unfortunately, optimising manufacturing operations across these core dimensions are simply not possible using outdated manual processes which are still prevalent across most manufacturing operations today. Putting 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 manufactures delay or fail to investigate the practical implications of these technologies now, then as their consumer markets evolve and their peers continue to raise the bar, they will inevitably be forced to play catch-up in the future. Instead, manufacturing leaders should not be put off by the veneer of trending phrases or new terminology but investigate the underlying core concepts and technologies for the tangible benefits that they provide.
Manufacturers do not need to be at the bleeding-edge of innovation either, they can start by implementing small scale pilots to demonstrate value directly in the context of their unique organisations. In other words, you do not need to move to Industry 4.0, build a smart factory, embark on a global digital transformation project or any other [insert buzzword] 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, an admission: As mentioned at the beginning, I have spent almost three decades in this technology industry and when you live in a land for so long, you can’t help but start to speak like a native!
Jason Chester, Director of Global Channel programs, InfinityQS
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa