Peter Bigelow

Thinking through the impact of technology decisions.

What customers do with the product we build and how they accomplish a whole lot more in terms of technological output after we tweak a process to provide just “a little more” always amazes me.

Then there are the other technologies. Not the ones we produce, but the ones we use, or wish we could use, to produce the technologies we sell.

As impressive as any customer’s technology appears, I still relate best to the technologies that could impact my business. Some new technologies seem mundane on the surface, while others have that “wow!” factor that puts your mind in overdrive, thinking “what if,” and might catapult your company to the next level. Then there are some that sound more promising than they prove to be in practice.

The problem is most of us get more than a little wrapped around the tasks that make up our day-to-day existence and don’t think about how a new or different technology could help us until it’s too late. We miss opportunities to significantly improve capability or throughput by not considering something new because “we don’t need that right now,” or hyper-focus on replacing something with the same because it is a known entity.

One such example is software. There’s been much noise over the years about improvements in CAM software and better use of ERP software. No matter which platform you use, however, those improvements are only as good as the next process the data are sent to. In the case of CAM, data may be manipulated faster and better than ever, but if they are sent to a process that either cannot accept that data or does so only through herculean effort, then the investment is not yielding the desired process results. If the CAM data are not backwards compatible with an older drill or forward compatible with a new machine, then an opportunity is lost to truly improve the entire process by best harnessing new technology.

Walking any trade show floor, it is easy to be mesmerized by the latest and greatest. As exciting as some of the new equipment offerings are, however, it still boils down to thinking, and rethinking, the desired process improvement and  how, or even if, the new equipment will be  beneficial.

Which brings us to the mundane. Maybe before making wholesale changes to something like CAM software, first it would be better to invest in a new drill – and better still – to plan out the entire process so when CAM software and drill are specified, they are compatible. And, while taking that action, maybe think through the imaging area, as well as press, plating, route and inspection processes to ensure the CAM data will be universally compatible and the investment will eventually provide the greatest bang for the buck!  

Thinking through the entire requirement – or opportunity – can be a mundane task, as is sweating the details to make sure the best decision is made with the best available information. Too often we only look at the task at hand and forget to plan the bigger picture, so when all the pieces are connected, the result is “wow!” not “whoa!”

And, as is usually the case, some of the most “wow” new technology is also some of the most expensive. This makes following a solid decision tree that much more important. None of us can afford to spend upward of half a million dollars just to find out the new process does not do what was expected or can only process some of the jobs normally run, or the required maintenance costs both downtime and big bucks. All such outcomes, if not fully understood, considered and calculated into the equation can make the difference between a benefit (“wow!”) and a costly mistake (“whoa!”).

Even small expenditures in new technology can be challenging to contemplate. Spending a couple thousand on a compact packaging machine could be the proverbial homerun, while the same expenditure on inexpensive SPC software may be a black hole of wasted time and money – or vice versa. Regardless of the size of investment, a rigorous thought process is needed, as the risks and rewards may well be the same. The “what if” thought process is more important now than ever.

Investing in new technology and all the “what ifs” that technology might bring is far more complex than in years past. With equipment and processes now “talking” to each other, and the interface between equipment, processes and, yes, even people becoming blurred as intuitive technologies evolve, the risk/reward analysis is more complex than ever. The evolution of capital investment analysis has shifted from thinking about a discrete piece of equipment, through looking at a discrete work area or department, to now requiring careful consideration of the entire manufacturing process and the final verification and validation process before spending a single dime on equipment, software or new technology. That’s both the exciting part and the challenging aspect of those other technologies that directly impact our businesses.

Being both excited and challenged is exactly what technology is all about, whether supplier or user. The challenge can often be freeing yourself from the day-to-day to think through what you really want to accomplish and the options available to reasonably get the job done.

That’s tough to do when at work, racing between phone calls, emails and pages. It is equally difficult when walking a trade show inundated by lofty promises and the sparkling bling of new technologies. Easy or not, success comes from knowing how best to harness new technologies into our business in a way that maximizes ROI in time and money.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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