Can We Control Complexity?

July 12, 2012
The technical developments of the last centuries are stunning. Realizing the Internet has only played a significant role since the middle ‘90s, this becomes particularly clear, especially considering the development of mobile devices and what we call “the internet of things.”

Complexity and the speed of innovation steadily increase in automation as well. All of that has to be manageable by everyone involved.

In the middle of June, the VDI (the Association of German Engineers) held the VDI-Congress Automation 2012 (www.automatisierungskongress.de) in Baden-Baden, Germany. This year’s framing issue, “Control Complexity—Assure Future,” was considered in terms of design and engineering, modeling, process automation, manufacturing automation, technical trends and wireless.

The last two centuries have been characterized by a dramatic increase of functionality. The problem with that: Complexity also has increased extremely. Manufacturers have been very busy with getting new functions to work. Thereby, “usability” was very often left behind. Dr.-Ing. Kurt D. Bettenhausen, chairman of the GMA said in Baden-Baden: “ ‘Less is more’ is the demand here, and it applies to do the right thing here! The additional function or feature at any cost is not the target, but user-friendly handling with reliable functions has to be the design target for ‘automation made in Germany.’ ”

People’s handling of complexity
For me personally, the question how we as people can handle the steadily increasing complexity is particularly interesting.  Along these lines, VDI and VDE-GMA (the German union for measurement and automation technologies) did a survey among members. What they found out is that complexity is especially shown in the interdependency of questions.

Primarily, complexity gets evaluated by its number of interactions: 45.5 percent of the interviewed persons experience complexity daily; 84.1 percent expect an increase of complexity; 68.1 percent use tools like project management to handle the complexity; and 86.7 percent feel well-prepared for the increase of complexity.

These arrangements take place based on personal qualification and experiences. After all, 46 percent of the interviewed persons said they needed more support in handling complexity. In particular, the exchange of experiences among one another plays an important role here. At this point, there is still a backlog among companies and educational institutions.

The GMA’s conclusions based on the survey are:

  • Complexity continues to be more pervasive and is not to be underestimated.
  • There is still much to do in the development of devices and systems to enable easy handling.
  • German engineers feel well prepared in handling complexity.

From my point of view there is another important aspect that wasn’t discussed in Baden-Baden. In the face of ever-increasing complexity, we all need times of rest and relaxation far away from any complexities.

Martin Buchwitz, [email protected], is Editor in Chief of SPS-Magazin in Germany.

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