Peter BigelowThe balancing of “intelligence” and “smart” is an age-old conundrum.

The rage these days is something called “Industry 4.0.” I have been invited to scores of presentations designed to show how Industry 4.0 is not just the next generation of manufacturing, but a must-do next step to produce higher quality product, faster, on-time, and at far less cost. Industry 4.0 sounds exciting and novel, so I have participated in webinars, attended seminars and read up on this must-do phenomenon.

Spoiler alert: It’s not all that new!

 

Industry 4.0 originated in Germany out of a project led by McKinsey Consulting and conducted at Robert Bosch. The principals found that by harnessing automation, software and cognitive computing, a “smart factory” could be created where all aspects of manufacturing and diverse processes could communicate with each other, resulting in significantly greater efficiency. In the minds of McKinsey and Bosch, what differentiated Industry 4.0 was the ability to utilize and harness cloud computing and cyber-physical systems (robotics) with sensors and humans to make a factory “smart” – or at least smart enough to recognize when a process or step deviated and make instantaneous corrections so the entire manufacturing environment would not skip a beat.

The technology utilized – hardware and software – truly is amazing, and the intuitive thinking many of these systems exhibits gives a glimpse into how different the future could be. Intelligent is not necessarily smart, however, and intelligence does not necessarily translate to better. Just ask anyone who has ever managed people.

Some of the biggest disasters in my working career have been the result of a highly intelligent, if not outright brilliant, person overthinking a simple task and creating a Rube Goldberg-like solution that not only didn’t work, but left in its trail waste, lost time and more than a few angry customers. Intelligence is certainly necessary to think through a problem. An intelligent analysis does not always result in a smart solution, however.

Sometimes smart solutions come from the least intelligent but most experienced contributor. We have all been in situations, most likely on the shop floor staring at a piece of scrap or machine that is down, hours into analysis of what or how something went wrong. Inevitably, one of the operators will walk by and make an off-the-cuff comment beginning with “Have you checked … ?” What follows is the crowd, in unison, exhaling “aha!” Problem solved – but not because of “intelligence!”

Throughout the decades I have been working, countless new trends have been in essence the same as Industry 4.0. Back in the mainframe computing ’70s it was called “Logistics,” while in the microcomputer ’80s it was called “Flexible Manufacturing.” In the PC computing ’90s came “Mass Customization,” followed in the networked computing new millennium decade by the “Smart Factory.” Notice the common thread running through all the manufacturing trends of our generation? For the past 40 years – and probably for the past 4,000 – each generation has sought ways to harness the latest technology to enable “Industry” to make better, faster decisions. There is certainly nothing wrong with such thinking. There also is nothing new about it.

Harnessing computer power to enable making better decisions is nothing new. The newest technology in sensors, hardware and related software is nothing less than spectacular, far superior to what was cutting-edge just a few years back. Employee knowledge, training and capability have also eclipsed the abilities of prior generations. The challenge (and opportunity) is how to deploy the right combination of cutting-edge intelligent technology with tried-and-true capability to produce the smartest solution.

The ageless conundrum to work through is balancing the search for “intelligence” against our need for truly “smart,” so our companies continually become “better.” The common theme of new business thinking for over a generation has been how to achieve the holy grail of automated, smart shop-floor manufacturing, while maintaining flexibility and reducing costly potential risks. Each iteration of state-of-the-art, intelligent technology edges us closer, but the basic concept is the same: to obtain better information, faster, from the newest, most powerful computing technology available.

As impressive as the next generation of intelligent computerization and automation may appear, at the end of the day we may want to better understand whether  “Industry 4.0,” hyped as new, is intelligent, smart, or just more of the same.

Applying state-of-the-art computing power and adding intelligent pieces of complementary sensor or robotic technology may help improve efficiency, especially with repetitive processes or when manufacturing a stable and consistent end-product is the goal. Upgrading to today’s faster computers with highly intelligent software may also result in improvement, but more often than not success is derived from a mix of up-to-date, intelligent, cognitive thinking automation and the (perhaps) less intelligent but well-honed skills of the experienced, competent employee. As intelligent, fast and technologically rich as state-of-the-art sensors, automation and software may be, installing them as a standalone solution may not yield the desired results. I suspect that, as in the past, giving that latest intelligent technology to skilled, competent employees is the “smart” way to achieve better results.

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

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