Do you have any clue what you’re doing?

I hear that question often. Most times it comes right before I learn something new. In other situations it tells me to pay closer attention. Technology is one of those fields where we should all be asking ourselves this question.

Change is accelerating and technology is a key driver — especially in manufacturing. Two major technologies drive change and another enables the change to occur quickly and effectively. At the same time, these technologies have a dark side created by the challenges associated with cybersecurity. These technologies and the change they create make it essential for every manufacturer to ask themselves, “Do you have any clue what you’re doing?”

Manufacturing is being turned inside out by additive manufacturing (3D printing) and robotics. Additive manufacturing changes all the design rules and collapses economies of scale. Designers can finally focus on fitness for use, not on how to make a complex design work. Now, if you can draw it, you can make it with additive manufacturing. This technology also makes very small (n=1) custom runs economically viable. Think about it. Additive manufacturing makes it possible — and in many cases practical — to manufacture anything, almost anywhere, in lot sizes of one.

Robotics and the automation it facilitates are also transforming manufacturing. Moore’s law may be dead in microchips, but it’s alive and well in automation. Costs are plummeting and capabilities skyrocketing. Robots that cost $250,000 and required another $250,000 in safety equipment 10 years ago can now be installed for less than $50,000. Even the smallest companies can invest in the technology, eliminate their least desirable and most mundane jobs, and increase their market competitiveness.

The combination of additive manufacturing and robotics transforms the way products can be designed, produced, and customized. Here in Madison, there are companies following this path and transforming their businesses. Robots perform difficult and dangerous jobs, freeing employees to work on other tasks that create more value. Additive manufacturing makes customization and prototyping quicker and more feasible. In our work we’ve documented ways that additive manufacturing can transform traditional manufacturing processes. Have you followed these trends? Do you have any clue what you’re doing?

Connected devices — the Internet of Things (IoT) — make the other technologies more effective. Portability and computing power are the leveraged capabilities in this enabling technology. They put more data in operators’ hands and make it available anywhere in the world. The IoT technology can unlock new potential in operations around the world. It can also bring companies to their knees if implemented recklessly.



It’s critical to use the data and power to ask the right questions. In many cases, we see this technology being used to “pave cow paths” — providing remote data to perform tasks that we’ve done for decades in other ways. The siren call of this technology is to improve the efficiency of individual pieces of equipment or operations while actually damaging the capability of the entire system. The ability to use connected devices provides tremendous power — to build or destroy value. Before engaging this technology, here’s the question: Do you have any clue what you’re doing?

All of this technology comes with a dark side: All the risks and challenges of cyber shenanigans. Cybersecurity is one of the most daunting and pervasive concerns across all industries. Every connected device is another access point for a cyber criminal. Every employee can trigger a successful breach. Every technology contains weak points that can be exploited. All of this makes it essential to assess your operation’s cyber risk and make conscious decisions about what risks to accept and which to mitigate. Tools like the new National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework makes that process easier to take the right actions.

Technology accelerates change — especially in dynamic industries like manufacturing. It accelerates change, but should be a part of an integrated strategy that also includes two other Ts: talent and techniques. Putting these three Ts together leads to effective transformation across the organization. The integration of the three Ts leads to exploration that causes the right questions to be asked before major changes and investments become ingrained. Following an integrated process that leverages the three Ts effectively will leave you in a better place. A place where when someone asks, “Do you have any clue …?”

Your answer will be, “Why, yes. Yes I do!”

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