Are We Solving the Big Problems?

Nov. 30, 2012
Jason Pontin never shies away from making a point. The cover of the current issue of MIT Technology Review (Volume 115, No. 6) features a picture of U.S. astronaut Buzz Aldrin with this caption, “ ‘You promised me Mars colonies. Instead I got Facebook.’ We’ve stopped solving big problems.”

John Berra writes this month (The Future is Attainable with Today’s Automation) that we have developed many technologies that can help make our manufacturing and production more effective and profitable—and yet these technologies are woefully underutilized. I have received comments that the older engineers—those very ones whom we are fearful of retiring soon—are the main roadblocks to implementing these technologies. Many of the people reading this editorial resemble that comment.

Pontin, formerly editor of Red Herring back in the “dot-com bubble” days of the late ‘90s, has followed technology for many years. He states in his editorial, “It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it.”

Public/private partnerships have been the hallmark of progress in the United States, and indeed in many regions of the world, for about a hundred years. We must have public awareness and support (and not only in dollars) if the conversation about developing and implementing advanced manufacturing technologies is to be realized. But it is not solely the government’s responsibility. What concerns me, especially watching the political ads from the last election, is how apparently clueless our political class is about technology and manufacturing.

Keith Nosbusch, Rockwell Automation chairman and CEO, has lent his personal clout and prestige backing Smart Process Manufacturing. A substantial group of the country’s top thought leaders from manufacturing and academia has compiled a detailed smart process manufacturing roadmap. At its latest gathering, leaders decided to make a concerted push at the U.S. Federal government level to gather support for a National Manufacturing Policy. Nosbusch told me in a private interview during Automation Fair in November, “We don’t expect government policies to solve everything, but we must raise the conversation at the highest levels.”

Challenge for young people
I think this is a fair challenge for our young engineering students. Let’s define some big problems for them to solve. While we’re at it, we can tell the story that manufacturing is no longer the dirty, hazardous, back-breaking work that it was through the 1970s.

There were tremendous changes in manufacturing and production throughout the 1990s. The generation of engineers about to retire accomplished much. It is now time to break in the next generation. They will see things with fresh perspectives. They will assume computing power, mobility, networking, collaboration. I bet they still use email, though. But that’s another story. With some mentoring, they can take us to the next level.

I asked Jim Pinto to look at some new developments where we can blow the paradigms and old assumptions. One of those is the myth of machines replacing people. He did some research and came upon the story of man and machine working together. I saw some research where a weaker man plus a machine plus a good process is better than a stronger man plus a machine plus a bad process.

Jim says, “Enhanced productivity comes by optimizing the human element. People provide the peripheral vision; they fill in the gaps and create the broader context in ways that machines cannot.” That should become one of our goals.