Grey beards and blue plaid: How to keep from falling behind
Dec. 14, 2015 – Walking through September’s Canadian Manufacturing and Technology Show (CMTS) gave me cause to realize how lucky we all are to live in these times, and made me pause to reflect on my own personal 35-year journey. We (myself and other people approximately my age) straddle two great industrial generations; an older generation that brought the PLC into the mainstream, and a new generation that is doing the same thing with the Internet of Things (IoT).
Both generations started with a common attitude towards innovation. In each case, the incoming technology wasn’t a mere evolution, it was (and is) a revolution. Technology revolutions are disruptive, and disruption — in manufacturing especially — is always avoided. Both generations required more than a brand new technology, they each required a brand new way of thinking. They both required persistence, determination and sometimes even a bit of arrogance and bravado. In my first go-round, I was often put in the position of “prove it,” which meant doing it for free to demonstrate to all the naysayers that it would work. And, there were a lot of naysayers. One of the problems we had then, which is exactly the same as the problem the new generation faces now, is that we were young and, in the industry’s eyes, inexperienced. To us, in our youthful confidence, “experienced” often meant “stuck and well-practiced in doing it the same old way.” But, we persisted, earning enough opportunities to eventually gain a solid foothold and start our businesses. And now we are the “grey beards,” looking suspiciously at what the young guns, wearing their blue plaid shirts, are heralding as the new way of doing IT on the plant floor.
As I was walking the show, these were some of the thoughts on my mind. A couple years ago, I helped launch a start-up company to help bring IoT into manufacturing, and we hired some really bright young people to get it started. Interestingly, blue plaid seemed to be their favourite fashion style, regardless of the occasion. The initial idea was that I would be a coach and mentor, but they soon convinced me that “every company needs a few grey beards.” This was a different attitude than the earlier revolution, certainly from my personal experience. But, I think it’s an excellent attitude, and an excellent idea: blue plaids and grey beards, all on the same team.
Manufacturers make trust-based decisions; their decisions are based largely on brand, on what they are familiar with, and on relationships — in other words, things they trust. New technology is instantly something they are not familiar with, and new technology brands are not yet unrecognizable to them. (And, if they do recognize the brand, it’s likely that the company has an evolutionary technology and not really a revolutionary technology.) So, to even get a chance to present, requires having a long-term relationship, and a long-term relationship often comes with a grey beard (at least in manufacturing).
There’s another difference between “then” and “now.” Back then, I believe there were far more independent companies in Canada and far more autonomy for foreign controlled companies with operations here. The decades of having a currency advantage may have lulled a big chunk of our industry into complacency, perhaps stymying a more aggressive attitude towards adopting, or at least trying out, revolutionary technologies. Most seem satisfied with evolutionary rather than revolutionary, unaware that simply keeping up is actually falling behind. Although our universities, colleges and innovation acceleration centres, all seem eager to marshal their energies to drive the sector into the new age, it will take more than that; it’ll take a new attitude and a collaboration of multiple generations — the grey beards supporting the ideas of the blue plaids, and the blue plaids willing to get their hands dirty, proving their ideas out on the shop floor.
At the end of the day, it’s not about manufacturing or machines or processes or even IT. It’s about people, just like it always has been, whether its people building it, using it, buying it, or just trying it. Our companies need people to drive innovation, to be imaginative, to be creative and to be sustainable, generation to generation.
Welcome to the new age of IT in manufacturing; it looks vaguely familiar. It’s a great industry to be in, and a great time to be in it.
This column was originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.