IMTS 2018 spectacle IMTS
It’s showtime for manufacturing. Making manufacturing buzzworthy, or “disruptive” in the idiom of this Information Age, is the new objective.

Uncertainty in the Information Age

Ideas without references, activities without results threaten to turn manufacturing into a spectacle

Last month I spent several days hiking through McCormick Place in Chicago with 125,000 or so other visitors to IMTS 2018, soaking in what ought to have been clear by now: manufacturing is an information-processing activity. Collecting information — data of course, but also statistics, analysis, “intelligence” — is equally important as production planning or set-up, but spreading information about yourself and your ability is just as important as sharing information. It’s how reputations are made. It’s fine to have been in business for decades, producing parts and supporting customers , but customers (and investors) want to know what you have done recently?

This new enthusiasm for information is not unwarranted, nor without value. It’s a practical approach to the prevailing models of business, with flat organizations, loose collaboration, and speed-to-market all working to fulfill various visions of lean or custom or light-footprint manufacturing. In that sense, it is an approach that conforms to the perspective of individuals who have earned their manufacturing experience in the past decade or so.  

While metalcasters lament the scaled-down landscape of their industry, and worry about the availability of talent to sustain the industry they have built, they share such concerns with specialists in other discrete segments of the wider manufacturing landscape – the most connected and motivated of whom were there with me over six crowded days. And if that anxiety is felt more acutely by some it can be attributed to the fact that they have not conceded to this more frenetic, reaction-based version of manufacturing, defined almost entirely by product design and motivated by contacts and transactions.

In the sped-up, flattened-out version of manufacturing buyers don’t seem to care very much if the part is a casting or a forging, or a 3D-printed structure, as long as it matches the design specification and is delivered fast and at the quoted cost. It’s all manufacturing. It’s a delivery stage. To these buyers, skill or specialization are secondary considerations.

And the atmosphere for all this is electric; it’s showtime for manufacturing. It makes manufacturing thrilling, or transformative, or “disruptive” in the idiom of this Information Age.  

But the thirst for information sounds a lot like uncertainty, or at least it sounds that way to me as I field inquiries from individuals up and down this supply chain — people I approach for explanations or clarifications, but who source me to learn what their constant contacting cannot reveal. They want to know why manufacturing is suddenly and so enduringly strong?

They’re operating within it. They’re moving through it, but they are not inhabiting it. They can see up and down their supply chain, but the wider universe — the tariffs, the taxes, the regulations, all the “issues” that have been the tether lines of manufacturing for decades — seems to have no pull because their activity is conducted mainly in space, and that alone creates uncertainty. Can industrial and consumer demand continue to grow? And is it possible to have more than “growth”? Is it possible to endure? Is there any information that can make this clear?

Why is certainty so rare in the age of information? Without knowing it, this is the question that manufacturers (and really, everyone) wants answered, because a generation that relies on information, that makes a vocation of seeking information, that revels in spectacles and exalts the value of information above skill or experience, has no framework for evaluating results.

Where is that context to be found? Public and private institutions are widely discredited and mistrusted, and commercial organizations are intentionally downsized. In business as in life, individuals are left to fend for themselves, to find the information they can use to accomplish the task at hand.

The only sensible alternative to this is for individuals to make themselves more than players in the spectacle. We have to create the context that skill and experience have provided, and that will make information worthy of the value credited to it.

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