Making the Connection

Feb. 15, 2013
Novelty wears off The reflection on us

Nearly every issue of FM&T touches on some recent triumph of information in metalcasting technology, and how more accurate simulation, more extensive documentation, more readily obtainable reports and more reliable data are improving product quality, process efficiency, and profitability. It’s marvelous, and there seems to be no limit to the functions available for any sort of task.

Barely a day passes that I am not invited to learn about the tremendous advantages of some new IT product. Just in today’s mail, for example, I learned about a new “plant-wide information system” that is “available globally to acquire, visualize and analyze production data,” and now also offers “new information server options and simplifies complex production operations with multi-touch operator inputs.”

Anywhere you go, you can gather the minutest details of your core room or melting operation, and the alerts and sirens from distant crises can find you, too. “Two-finger, multi-touch gestures simplify zooming, sweeping and rotating images on consumer operator interfaces. Designed to make complex production plant operations moreintuitive, set point inputs are also available.”

The novelty of having so much information so readily available passes pretty quickly. It was remarkable the first few times you stroked a little glass panel to find an address or order a pizza, but that’s all routine now.  And, it’s trite to joke about how so many of these little tools have a prefixed ‘i', as though the user and the machine are morphed: “I” am my phone … my phone is me. It’s unsettling, but there’s some truth to it. Wherever you are, you will be found and held responsible.

Don't blame the information

But, before I blame the expanse and speed of information for the present dystopia let me acknowledge how essential this wealth of information is to our current success. Information is principally responsible for reenergizing manufacturing, because it has introduced new ways to evaluate operations and to identify way to improve them. Information technology is at the root of product development and design, which has been one of the driving factors in the revival of U.S. manufacturing: customers want immediate access to their suppliers. Supplier-customer relationships are built on reliable information.

But that’s the detail that concerns me, because if everyone has access to data then every supplier-customer relationship is vulnerable to newer or different data. Your data can be challenged, and bad information has a remarkably nasty ability to survive in this wild, wired world we inhabit. Even false information is hard to challenge, and damage control can be just as debilitating as failure.

There is much discussion and debate now about “big data,” and the problems that organizations have managing the volumes of information they collect and consume — how to evaluate the details efficiently and make the best decisions.

Debating Big Data

What matters more, I think, is how well the data we consume changes us, and how the data we report reflects us: what do your colleagues, customers, and competitors conclude about your work, your performance, your products, or your service, based on the information you report – or fail to report?

The Big Data I’m worrying about is the vast collective of information that treats everyone and everything as a data point, with all of us vulnerable to something newer or more sensational. If that’s true, then we need better information.

Each of us needs to develop a competitive advantage, something that cannot be undermined or challenged. It has to be something no one else is offering now, and that will be hard to replicate. It’s character, of course. We need to strengthen the ethics and principles that were the basis of relationships and good business well before information became so common.

If it is our technological destiny — to say nothing of our social and political future — to endure more collectivization, then we’re going to have to be ‘better’ individuals to compete and succeed.

About the Author

Robert Brooks | Content Director

Robert Brooks has been a business-to-business reporter, writer, editor, and columnist for more than 20 years, specializing in the primary metal and basic manufacturing industries. His work has covered a wide range of topics, including process technology, resource development, material selection, product design, workforce development, and industrial market strategies, among others. Currently, he specializes in subjects related to metal component and product design, development, and manufacturing — including castings, forgings, machined parts, and fabrications.

Brooks is a graduate of Kenyon College (B.A. English, Political Science) and Emory University (M.A. English.)