Time to invest in endless possibilities

As manufacturers, our place in the market is only secure if we continue to expand and grow our product lines, our production volume, and our quality. The Internet of Things makes all of this possible—but only if we invest in the technology.

By Bob Vavra, Content Manager for Plant Engineering March 5, 2015

What I like about March is that it’s filled with possibilities. Baseball is back, and so are the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Even in Boston, where they’ve gotten more than their fair share of snow this winter, the promise of a thaw and the return of warmth are on the horizon.

The thing about possibilities is that they never can be more than just a possibility unless you act on them. The spare parts in your warehouse have no value until they are plugged into a machine. The inventory you manufacture just collects dust until it is sold. So it is with possibilities; they are made real only when someone sees what is possible and takes action.

The possibilities for manufacturing this year are great, and they are expansive. The new age of manufacturing holds great promise for efficiency, productivity, and safety. We can connect our machines through the Internet of Things; even more, we can deliver actionable data that will improve our operation.

Internet of Things, or Industry 4.0 for our European friends, is an extension of the connected world we live in today. Any piece of knowledge is a click away, and any device can deliver that knowledge to us, wherever in the world we are. The world is out there, but we can bring it into the palm of our hand.

Even more, the technology allows us the ability to simplify that data. We don’t need to know everything at every moment, and the technology has evolved to give us what we need when we need it, and what we ask for in limited quantities. We can control not just the data, but how it is consumed.

In the process, we have created tidal waves of change, as well as confusion and uncertainty. The old rules and the old ways are not gone; the fundamentals remain. The speed with which those fundamentals are seen and acted upon is what is new. The pace of change and the pace of information have accelerated. We must move faster and think faster while maintaining our commitments to excellence in process and product. Speed is our ally, but it also can be our enemy.

Yet with all the possibilities that the technology has to offer us, we must change, and that pace of change now must accelerate if we are to deliver on the promise of this revolution in manufacturing. That will require two things: capital investment and human investment. I’ve written extensively over the last decade about the need to find, train, and retain a new generation of workers, and that subject will continue to be at the cornerstone of the manufacturing discourse. For now, let’s talk about the other component—capital investment.

After four years of solid growth, manufacturing holds a justifiable place at the pinnacle of the world’s economy. Now is the time to reinvest in manufacturing. We have put off for too long the needed upgrades to our capital equipment, our systems, and our plant infrastructure. We need to create new lines to take advantage of the growth that is here, and the growth that is coming. From oil to automobiles, from pharmaceuticals to the very personal computing devices that make the Internet of Things work, we see a world of possibilities.

As manufacturers, our place in the market is only secure if we continue to expand and grow our product lines, our production volume, and our quality. The Internet of Things makes all of this possible—but only if we invest in the technology.

The interconnection of pumps and valves and motors and drives into a seamless system is possible. They will not, however, connect on their own. We must first understand what this connected plant can deliver to us, and then put those systems in place and put them to use. And we need to do it now.

Technology can be deployed anywhere, so why do it here? The last decade conclusively answered that question. American manufacturing is justifiably envied for its commitment to quality, safety, and productivity, and it is those qualities that helped create growth and stability for our economy. This was accomplished, however, without strong capital investment. We made it work with what we had.

But just as cherry blossoms need fertilizer each spring and baseball teams need to retool their organizations to bring in new players to remain competitive, manufacturing needs to invest in its plants and in new technology—and the training to take full advantage of the technology—in order to continue the growth we’ve worked so hard to earn.

Without more capital investment, growth may stall. With capital investment? The possibilities are endless.