Peter Bigelow
When tomorrow’s equipment breaks down, who are you going to call?

How do they do it? Why do they do it? As I stand behind our “MIS Guy” who is trying to resurrect my computer, or at least the software and data on it, I repeatedly ask myself those two questions.

I will be first to admit that as much as I like being a part, albeit a small one, of the tech sector, I am decidedly not the poster child of a savvy, must-get-my-hands-on-the-latest-device kind of guy. Fact is, when it comes to software I am a creature of habit, preferring the tried and true over the unknown. So when my desktop computer gave me that blue screen wink and a blink that XP had indeed finally expired, I did not walk – I ran – to my MIS Guy to save my old, well-understood right-hand screen.

MIS Guy does not work exclusively for my company, so I had to wait. But, sure enough, right around 8 pm he waltzed in, not a care in the world. Sitting down, he began rapid-fire typing of some sort of code-like instructions to do things I am clueless about, such as “safe start” and “defragment” drives, “re-bundle,” etc. Awed at his pace and confidence, besides trying to figure how and why he was doing what he was doing, I couldn’t help but think what the heck is he doing? And, I wish I could do that! Like an ER surgeon, he was able to revive the patient, but only long enough for all to say a heartfelt “goodbye,” and back up gobs of my (hopefully useful) data. With that, we ordered a new computer and scheduled time for MIS Guy to return and set me up in the 7th (or is that 8th?) generation of what to me is increasingly foggy Windows.

I know. I really do need to find a way to emerge from the dark ages of analog and transition into the digital renaissance. And, regrettably, as I look around my company – not to mention most of my competitors’ and customers’ facilities – I am not alone!

As painful as it was for me to deal with a “line down” situation of my computer’s untimely if not unexpected death, it is even worse when that key piece of equipment on the shop floor suddenly stops working, or worse, stops working consistently.

For decades, the capital equipment we employed to produce cutting-edge product has been either manually (read: human) or electromechanically controlled. These sorts of technologies have many limitations: excessive variability, lack of consistency, high labor hour to machine hour production, etc. They also have some advantages, however, such as the ability to last forever with only the skilled wrench, creative retrofit, and well-timed kick of a caring maintenance crew. Things are changing, if not already changed, insofar as capital equipment is concerned, however.

Even the most modern greenfield startups have some of the tried and true electromechanical and batch processes that have been the backbone of our industry. However, the majority of equipment put in service today are high-tech, software-rich machines and systems that offer tremendous flexibility, incredible accuracy, lightning speed, and verification/validation capability only dreamed of in the past, that is, as long as they work.

As a creature of habit, I like being able to look at a problem, such as a broken switch, and think through the process to fix or replace that switch – wrench, kick and all. Problem is much of the new equipment involves not a hardware switch but rather a software or firmware “switch” that to fix requires knowing code, not a wrench. And more often than a switch breaking, there will instead be some other type of “bug” that quietly but devastatingly wreaks havoc on the piece of equipment and process. Not knowing how to fix what’s broken may be made worse by not even knowing where the problem is.

Which brings me back to MIS Guy. Happily he sits and types away grunting and “ah ha-ing” from time to time as he works his magic. I observe his lack of process documents. I marvel at his confidence. And it occurs to me that MIS Guy represents the maintenance department of the future, if not today.

We invest tons into new process equipment, all driven by computers, computers that require software and firmware talent to maintain and fix. Equally, the days of keeping the “machine” as long as a gear train functions may be well over, as the real guts of the equipment are no longer the motors, drives, pumps and gears that can be easily seen and replaced. Long-term ROI on newer capital equipment will reset in the hands of MIS Guy and his brethren, who must know shop floor environments, people-machine interaction, and understand the potential of a power surge, brown-out, static electric shock, bugs and malware, and damaged hard drives. Scary stuff to a generation of electromechanical folk. Even scarier for the next generation of tech-savvy programmers, who may not be comfortable working on the shop floor. And most scary to a penny-pinching industry that will need to replace equipment, not because it does not operate but because it may not communicate to parts of itself, other equipment, or even the human who allegedly runs it.

So add to the list of skillsets needed for the next generation of talent. We all need an MIS Guy, not just to keep the office laptop going but to make sure that tomorrow’s capital equipment actually works day in and day out, and also, maybe, to keep the creatures of habit among us asking, “How do they do it?”

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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