More Information = More Ideas

Aug. 1, 2005
Our attitudes often predict how we will deal with situations. If my wife drags me to some social outing when I’m convinced that I’ll have a miserable time—guess what?

In the rare event that I do have a good time, I had to overcome a lot of inertia generated by my attitude to eventually enjoy myself. The same situation can apply to the way manufacturing professionals look at the various laws and regulations constantly unleashed on them.

The question is just this—what is your attitude toward regulations? Do you say to yourself, “All these regulations do is cost me money. They never do anyone any good?” Or, do you say, “There’s not much we can do about these regulations now except learn to live with them. And, by the way, is there a way to use these ideas to improve performance?”

There are several stories in Automation World this month that show how other professionals have used some of the software tools that leading developers have written to not only help meet regulatory requirements, but also to improve manufacturing performance and profitability at the same time.

This is not to say that everything is perfect. Many of the products are new, and we’ll all have to learn how to use them. The suppliers will need to constantly improve them. But the potential rewards are huge.

The Summer 2005 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review has a wealth of ideas for enterprising manufacturing professionals. The article by Robert D. Austin and Richard L. Nolan titled, “In Search of the Next ‘Killer App,’ ” is one example. Reporting on research conducted by the Harvard Business School, the authors pondered why so few notice the early stages of the next technology killer application. There are two reasons, they deduced. “For one thing, … there is a tendency to adopt existing industries as frames of reference for new technologies,” they write. “Similarly, there is a tendency to anchor thinking in existing customer segments or to use others’ ideas to extend one’s own favorite thesis rather than to engage in a true recombination of ideas.”

Recombining ideas

They argue that the first manufacturing leaders, such as Henry Ford, learned to control and reduce variable costs. Modern technology enables us to reduce fixed and design costs, such as the cost of trying out new ideas. Engineers can work out new ideas in software, trying various combinations of ideas. If killer apps are to come from recombinations of ideas learned from these iterative experiments, then the system must yield more information than strictly necessary just to do the job.

To relate their ideas to our subject of dealing with regulations, some stories in this issue describe how software tools such as data historians and communications protocols enabled engineers to capture all of the relevant information required by various governments. Then, as our stories show, they discovered that all this information could be used to manage the factory to a higher level of performance than before.

Another other item of note in this issue is Jim Pinto’s provocative look at the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA). If you’re an ISA member, I encourage you to read his column on page 62 and think about his ideas. I happen to agree. I had a great mentor when I first served on some community boards of directors. He taught that such boards have two essential roles. The first is to hire the best possible executives. The second is to let them do their jobs while providing regular feedback on their performance and occasional guidance on long-range goals. Sounds like a governing principle that the ISA could use.

ISA focuses on process control. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) focuses on discrete processes. With the blending of control technologies, there is much to share between the two. They began a collaboration, but that’s not enough. It's time to get that moving, as well.