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The Data Doesn’t Support Us

June 27, 2022
We are doing what can be done to maintain control, to achieve certainty, but the volume of information we gather and consume causes us to lose certainty over the systems’ performance and reliability.

We have arrived at midyear and in certain sense that means 2022 is over. As I write, in my inbox are two separate ‘invitations’ to submit strategic plans for 2023 – as if to suggest that the issues swirling around us right now are of a lesser priority than committing something, anything to the schedule to be picked up six months later.

Of course, 2022 is still with us and it would seem more logical to give priority to evaluating current circumstances. That evaluation might allow us to make adjustments that will improve 2022’s results, and obviously could be instructive to whatever plans we make for 2023. How did planning for the future overtake managing the present, or at least assessing the current conditions?

Fortuitously, we have a “2022 State of Manufacturing Report” released this month by Fictiv, an AI-based platform for on-demand manufacturing. The report is revealing in its own right, and it prompts some thoughts about how and why we labor over planning.

The first revelation about the state of manufacturing in 2022 is that workplaces and business have adapted to the changes unleased by the Covid-19 pandemic, and they have moved forward. This alone should be newsworthy, though the report adds that remote-work will continue to be a factor in manufacturing – and supply chains are unreliable. All this is to say, the manufacturing sector is vulnerable because manufacturers cannot rely on the connections and agreements that are supposed to tie them together.

“To get ahead and stay ahead, companies are fortifying the foundations of their businesses,” the report observes. “They’re focusing on fundamentals like improving transparency of production and procurement and being more responsive to customer wants and needs. Leaders are bullish on outsourcing, but they know that the supply chain doesn’t stop at their company’s front door. They’re looking for ways to improve operational efficiency, collaboration, and productivity while mitigating information security risks — and they’re leveraging the power of technology to do it.”

Among the subordinate points, the Fictiv analysis finds that securing supply-chain reliability and customer satisfaction are atop the list of manufacturers’ current priorities, with many of the survey respondents trying to use the lack of reliability and customer approval to review and address the situation, for example through new analytics or visualization technologies.

Another reading finds that respondents want more control and predictability over manufacturing processes, which points them toward tighter supply-chain integration with fewer suppliers. A large majority of respondents want to reduce the number of businesses they rely on, and a smaller majority want to achieve better coordination with their suppliers, toward better customer service and support.

Beyond the supply chain, manufacturers are renewing their concerns about productivity – in particular as they accept the reality of remote workforces and the consequent tension this brings to collaboration, among designers, engineers, programmers, schedulers, and so on. Most respondents report their engineering teams are spending 10% or more of their time dealing with part-procurement issues, and they see a need to improve the way their engineering and procurement teams collaborate.

Still another area of manufacturers’ concern is “information security,” a growing risk to businesses as they adopt more digital technologies to maximize their operations’ performance. This reveals that a large majority of survey respondents have adopted digital manufacturing capabilities, and may be increasing their usage.

The “2022 State of Manufacturing Report” goes into more detail on these subjects, and more, but merely its arrival is a good sign: its an introspective not only to the state of manufacturing but also to the thinking of manufacturers. It reveals the anxiety of highly intelligent individuals – engineers, designers, people with advanced experience and understanding of complex systems and technologies – who feel isolated by the information that surrounds them, and us.

Undoubtedly information is an asset, but accumulating information is the role that manufacturers have assigned to themselves. As functionaries in such a system we are doing what can be done to maintain operations, but the volume of information causes us to lose certainty over the systems’ performance and reliability.

Longing for certainty is a human condition – and one we address only by acknowledging our place in creation. Gathering more information will not reveal our role in the manufacturing sector, but building new and reliable networks that emphasize trust and cooperation will allow us to use that information with more certainty.