In tracking plant data, keep your head up

By Bob Vavra August 4, 2016

August is the traditional month for a little sunshine and a little leisure, so here’s a selfie that combines both, at the Chicago area’s famed Ravinia Festival.In the 1990s, I invested in Pokémon cards. By "invested" I mean I bought a lot of them for my kids, and they played with them before discarding them on the floor of their bedroom and ultimately gave them away or sold them or threw them out. It was no different than my parents "investing" in baseball cards for me in the 1960s only to have me put them in the spokes of my bicycle wheels. You reap what you sow.

Pokémon, for those without kids in their 20s, was a bit of Japanese marketing genius that included cartoons, game cards, video games, and stuffed animals and a whole mythology that allowed you to "train" your character to engage in these virtual battles. The cards themselves became valuable for a while, like Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch Kids, and then they weren’t valuable any more and the whole Pokémon craze died down.

It resurrected last month when Nintendo released an interactive experience, Pokémon Go, which was developed by a company called Niantic. As I understand it (and I’m well past the age of having to understand this kind of thing) players use their cell phones and GPS to travel around and find and capture different characters in what was described as a "location-based augmented reality." Kind of like Las Vegas, I guess.

To travel, players have to move and actually walk, and so one of the immediate benefits of Pokémon Go was that it was getting these otherwise sedentary young adults up off their couches and into the world. The second thing it did was that it crashed the game’s servers in just under two weeks. The whole world was playing Pokémon Go, it seemed. There was the inevitable backlash, of course. A few players weren’t paying attention while they were walking and looking at their cell phones, and so there have been some injuries and even a couple of deaths attributed to distracted Pokémon Go playing. The problem with augmented reality is that it’s still not reality.

Technology, we concede, is usually a great thing. It’s great for playing games, it’s great for connecting with friends, and it’s great for staying in touch with the world. I am an unabashed fan of technology. It does, however, have its limits, and for me it’s a challenge to not allow my technology to become smarter than I am.

As manufacturing embraces more technology—more robotics, more portable devices managing more data, a more robust Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)—we also must embrace more human thought utilizing all of this information.

To put it in terms a Pokémon Go master could understand, we need to keep our head up as we search for solutions in our plant. Information is available from all of our plant devices, and it captures that information more effectively and efficiently than we can as humans. The value of this information only is as great as our capacity to act on it in a meaningful way. If we spend our day with just our data and not also on our plant floor, we know only what the numbers tell us. Our knowledge of our facility extends far beyond the spreadsheet or the handheld device.

For one thing, there are people out there—not virtual people; real people, with real insights. We need to look those folks in the eye and ask a few questions. Now we have machine data and human insight. Add our own instinct and we’ve got a solid base to build a plan to improve our operation. If all we do is wander around with our head down while we check our data, we will miss the world we live in. You’ve got to keep your head up.