The IIoT Interview: “The market is out of whack; people must come first”, says MESA
Despite the heady forecasts about economic value and productivity gains, evidence of transformational digital change in manufacturing is scarce; at least, no one wants to shout about it. The problem is manufacturers are cautious and competition is rife. Worse, the terminology is confused, and the approach is wrong-headed. Mike Yost, president of MESA International, says the market has to start putting people first, and technology second
Why are there so few heavyweight case studies describing industrial transformation at the hands of new technology? It is rare, after all, for a German car maker to lift the hood on the digital pyrotechnics lighting up its factory floors, or for US aerospace plants or Asian electronics factories to open their doors. Detailed cases of digital revisionism in the industrial sector are few and far between.
No one in manufacturing wants to share. How come? Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association (MESA) International, with around 1,000 members, representing a cross-section of the manufacturing and technology industries, knows why. It comes down to a combination of culture, caution and competition, says Mike Yost, president at MESA.
The last of these is the biggest deterrent, he suggests, and ultimately informs the inherent culture of improvement, and caution about giving the game away to rivals. “The larger companies – those we might consider to be more advanced – are less inclined to share information. Many of them even feel they’re behind, and are working to get ahead of the curve, and to gain a competitive advantage. A lot of times, it’s the smaller organisations that are more willing to talk,” observes Yost.
Smaller organisations and solutions providers, with permission to speak generically are more inclined to talk. “The real information tends to be more anecdotal,” he says.
This competitive streak is ingrained in the culture. “They will have breakthroughs at process level, and realise efficiency gains and such, but they just won’t talk about it. Manufacturers are still very concerned about sharing that information,” he says.
They also take technological advancement in their stride. Operational improvements, achieved with automation and instrumentation, have been an essential part of the manufacturing process always; to an extent, newer technologies are integrated into their systems organically, as a matter of course, without much pause or remark. Again, it’s a cultural thing for the industrial set.
“The things these folks are doing – the systems and devices they’re using – are getting smarter and smarter, of course; but do they think of them differently, as IoT technologies or digital technologies? It’s just evolution; they don’t stop and say, ‘hey, now we’re doing the industrial internet’. It’s a journey, a process of continuous improvement – which they’ve been on forever,” explains Yost.
“Even if we think it is more significant, more game-changing, lots of manufacturers consider it just a part of what they do. It’s not a separate initiative; it’s business-as-usual, even if the definition of usual has been stretched.”
There is another difficult sub-text here, too, for the developing narrative around technology in industry, linked to the interminable marketing exercise of badging new technologies and technical applications. “There is a lack of a uniform definition of what IoT is, as it applies to a manufacturing domain, and a lot of uncertainty and confusion as a consequence,” says Yost.
The same applies for artificial intelligence (AI), a major trend in manufacturing, and a classic example of technological semantics gone awry – where one person’s definition, of sentient machines, is quite different from another’s, of advanced analytics by any other name.
“A year or 18 months ago, no one was talking about AI in manufacturing. What is AI, anyway? Its truest definition is not what people are asking for at all. But manufacturers know there is something in it; they know there’s a promise, which they should look into. But it’s hard to make sense of, and to be committed to something different to what you’ve been committed to in the past,” explains Yost.
He resets; the tech sector’s issue with semantics has become troublesome in manufacturing. There are three ways to be smart in manufacturing, he says – to be smart in the process of it (factories), the business of it (enterprise), or the produce of it (goods). MESA International is looking to help with the first of these, primarily, with smart manufacturing itself.
There are numerous studies about the potential impact of technology on manufacturing; Yost’s favourite is from Cisco, from back in 2013, which promises to reveal how to capture a share of the $14.4 trillion ‘internet of everything’. As much as 27 per cent of the total value will come just from manufacturing, it finds. “Either way, we should be able to find some gold in those hills,” says Yost.
“These newer technologies have turned a lot of people’s attention. But I don’t think the market gets it from an organisational or cultural perspective. It’s a ‘people, processes, technology’ discussion, as always – where the tech is the driver. But as we mature, we will find that is backwards – that we still need to be driven by processes and talent. The technology has to fall in line.”
He adds: “Right now, the market is out of whack because everyone is chasing those big tech plays. That’s not to say the solution providers don’t have good things. There is more power and capability, all of a sudden – something that used to be custom-coded and hard-to-do now has native functionality, and can be hooked up and accessed off the network. But no one is clean in all of this; the confusion and doubt are coming from all sides.”
So what’s to do? How does the industry at large pivot, to switch away from technology as a driver to technology as an enabler, whilst realigning processes and culture to embrace digital change? MESA is working on tools to help to “train the trainers”, and generally give manufacturers a better grasp of the new digital racecourse, and how to jockey for position.
“We’re uniquely positioned because we represent the manufacturing industry from the bottom up – from the plant operations to the boardroom,” says Yost. Established 26 years ago, MESA is focused on the intersection of manufacturing and IT, taking on an increasingly mixed membership as technology has been mapped into factory operations. “Because that is the way the industry has evolved,” he says.
He rounds off: “The focus is on devices and systems and assets, and not on people, and that’s backwards. There’s a whole bunch of stuff we can do now to empower people. We are doing lots around the world, with training and workforce development, to formalise and unify methodologies so people can take control over what they’re doing and where they’re going, and how to get value from it.”