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Tech and the question of inevitability in manufacturing

Sept. 21, 2016

Many of us on the receiving end of a true technological breakthrough struggle to best leverage it for meaningful and competitive business gain.

Manufacturing’s head is in the cloud. Industry 4.0 is a foregone conclusion, and the Industrial Internet of Things, an explosion of sensors and data bigger than any data we’ve conceived of so far, are all poised to redefine our collective horizon line. A wealth of connected,
autonomous, digital, decentralized and automatic tools are flooding the manufacturing landscape, and a world unlike anything we’ve ever seen is starting to render right before our very eyes.

Tech is transforming everything in its path, and everything is in its path. Manufacturing—the tradition-laden behemoth that it is—is set to transform also. The question is: Will we let it?

How, now?

Every time a new technology arrives, the challenge it poses isn’t whether or not to use it, but how. Given that innovators themselves are rarely aware of a technology’s full potential—think Apple could have predicted Uber?—it should come as no surprise that many of us on the receiving end of a true technological breakthrough struggle to best leverage it for meaningful and competitive business gain.

It’s this struggle, as Michael Hammer pointed out in Harvard Business Review way back in 1990, that leads established businesses to make underwhelming use of what could have been a positively overwhelming and game-changing tool. Rather than build an airplane, those who have been well-served by 20th century manufacturing practices set about “paving the cow paths.” The result is the automation of tired, worn and familiar processes that could have been revolutionized. The inertia of the already tested and already entrenched wins out.

Unshrinkable violet

Our current crop of new technology, however, is no shrinking violet. Imbued with something like a democratic spirit, today’s pioneering tech will meet and help make its own most-maximized expression. Just as it’s in the nature of water to seek out the lowest point, it’s in the nature of new technology to remake reality so that the taken-for-granted past that preceded it is made obsolete.

In light of Industry 4.0’s inevitable maximization, then, this question becomes moot— “Will we let tech transform manufacturing?” 21st century tech will transform manufacturing. It’s already doing so. The better question is: Who will still be standing after it does? 

Disruptors don’t fear the disruption

Established manufacturers have vast customer bases, oodles of capital, recognized brands and legacy product lines, but disruptive companies and individuals have nothing to lose. Today’s powerhouses of American manufacturing may claim they’re trying to embrace new technology, but unless they’re willing to forego the cow paths for an airplane and the airplane for a transporter, someone will call their bluff.

In this brave new world, it’s anybody’s ballgame. For OEMs and other traditional manufacturers, any notion of going about “business as usual” presents the greatest threat. Industry 4.0 is here, and it’s begging to be wielded in ways no one has thought of yet.

From being willing to embrace a more localized and distributed manufacturing model to putting more of your supply chain eggs in the cloud’s big basket, the time for change is now. Disruptors are coming for your share of the market. Will you beat them to it by transforming yourself, or will you be disrupted?