I have been conversing with a few friends over the past few weeks about manufacturing. What I hear is a little disturbing. At least as an old guy. I’m over 60, but I still try out every new technology that comes by. Check it out see what works. How it works. What it can be used for.
That’s what started this blog 10 years ago. And my podcasts, videos, flickr photos, twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook. Since 1996 I’ve progressed from Palm Pilot and car phone, to newer Palms and cellular phones, to smart phones/iPad/laptop.
And I write about all the cool tools that are available in manufacturing. Granted, I no longer am responsible for getting something back into production. But I talk with engineers and managers who have successfully implemented new technologies and have positive results to report.
Yet, one of my friends pointed out that the thirst for knowledge about methods to improve manufacturing is almost unquenchable in Europe and Asia. But in the US? Not so much. Another friend talks about all the technologies that have been developed–and even exist in plants–that lie dormant, unused.
Many people tell me that the older guys just don’t want to work with the new technologies. It’ll take a few years and a generation change to see progress. That’s disturbing. It’s people my age who first smuggled PCs into manufacturing so that we could increase productivity. And applied digital technologies to process control. What has happened to all those innovative people?
If that is the case, then we should stop wringing our hands over looming retirements and hope that the new generation gets here faster.
What do you think? Are you as critical as my friends? On the other hand, what can we do to entice bright young people into manufacturing? I’m always open to speak to groups just about anywhere. Let me know.
From an integrator's perspective I don't think it is so much "old guy" syndrome as much as it is people simply not being aware of newer technologies that they can use to improve productivity. That is not only a problem on the industry side but also a problem on the integrator side.
I have not seen many integrators offering tools to their clients beyond the typical PLC/HMI setup, moving into databases, web-based analytics tools or big data.
Our clients that have embraced technology and moved from writing down or entering data into Excel and instead putting it into a database and using analytics tools have seen enormous gains in their operations and ability to answer questions as well as streamline maintenance processes.
There also seems to be a hurdle in upgrading technology in regards to operator training. Changing the status quo for can seem insurmountable to many process managers.
I saw a lot of this early in my career where I was doing some consulting with a large engineering department. In that department it seemed that the older guys were happy knowing what they knew, and doing what they were doing. Over the 4-5 years that I worked with that customer, I saw the negative impact on the companies ability to innovate.
Now, years later, I think that the size of the company or department, and the ability for people to get into a silo of one particular technology or system drives a lot of this thinking. There are engineers and companies out there innovating and pushing for better use of the technology we have, and adopting new technologies as they emerge.
I'm sure many of them are technology averse but most of them are almost certainly change averse. The older we get, the more we think we have to lose and become more conservative. Even gadgets geeks who enjoy playing with new technology are probably afraid to implement it for that reason.
This disease is indicative of why we need younger people in this field. The older staff often have sound reasons for resisting certain changes. However, they still need the regular challenge from a younger crowd that will honestly and fairly question what is going on.
Well, those 20 and 30 somethings are not there. Where are they? Schools have basically scared them off. Big factories are "evil" and "dirty" and "dangerous for the environment." Their parents have been teaching them to be "leaders" and "professionals." People who get dirty are looked down upon as if they were something the cat dragged in. Gosh, it was like that even when I was in high school 30 years ago. People look at dirty jobs as entertainment. Ask Mike Rowe.
So there is nobody to question what is going on. The old people are comfortable with something that sort of works, even if it isn't ideal. There is nobody with the education and the inexperience to question them. The professional leadership is too ignorant and inexperienced to even know what to ask for. The environmentalists are usually outsiders who may know the law quite well, but not a damned thing about engineering or the use of the products themselves.
This problem is real, and no, this isn't just about old people, its about society in general and the devolution of what our educational system has brought us.
Do young guys hold back good products? Innovation is a means to an end, not the end itself. Some innovations are useful for automation, some are not. So, yes, old guys that insist on only using A-B PLC's with HMI's can be a problem — but so are young dudes wanting to use the latest hyped idea. There are plenty of trendy fads that aren't of any use in automation — after all, who is talking about how Instant Messaging, WebVan, or AOL is going to impact manufacturing?
Also, innovation shouldn't just be about using whatever stuff the vendors are pushing, but using existing equipment in new ways, and better ways of doing business (such as lean, agile development, etc).
Constantly changing equipment isn't a good, either — it can cause maintenance nightmares.
Finally, you have to know what works for your particular situation. For example, I'm using distributed servo drives because the value is there (reduced cost and wiring), but not distributed I/O because the value isn't there for our machines (increased cost for no benefit).