At the juncture of manufacturing and information technology, there is always a crisis, a threat, a disaster waiting to happen. The data is wrong, or the system is not up to the requirements, or the back-up will fail. For manufacturers today, the building vulnerability concerns ‘cybersecurity’ — the possibility that valuable and/or confidential data may be accessible to competitors or malefactors who would use it to compromise or jeopardize, or threaten, the source.
In a highly competitive global business climate, it’s not hard to make manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors anxious. They rely on constant data exchange with their business partners. They do not need to be told that they are taking risks in doing business this way.
But alternatively, every crisis is an opportunity. This cybersecurity threat is an inversion of the enthusiasm preached to manufacturers (and everyone else) over the past five years about the emerging Internet of Things: “Think of the opportunities to be gained by coordinating all your production data and order information, and sharing it in real-time with relevant suppliers and customers!”, and similar pitches, have been the standard message of IT developers as well as capital equipment suppliers.
The tension between these two paraphrasings is evident on a grand scale now in the controversy swirling around the pending deployment fifth-generation mobile networks (5G): on one hand we have the promise of higher data rates, reduced latency, energy savings, cost reductions, higher system capacity, and extraordinary connectivity. On the other hand, we have the specter of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., the telecom giant with ties to the Chinese government, which abides by entirely different principles of individual and commercial rights than most non-Chinese citizens and businesses are comfortable with or will find tolerable. There is real concern in how this particular problem is resolved, mainly because the technological imperatives are so irresistible. 5G networks will be established and all of us will be drawn into them, however enthusiastic or antipathetic we feel about it.
How we feel is the unaccountable aspect of all this. The technology we use and share has an entirely separate existence – and there is a growing realization that technology will define our circumstances before we can begin to control the technology.
In forging and in all manufacturing, “technology” now is more than the means by which parts are made and business is transacted. Technology is becoming the cause of things — such as investments that forgers make in devices for data collection that never would have been considered for purchase because until lately no one had a use for such data.
And even amid all the doubts about cybersecurity, the imperatives of technology prevail. At a conference last month, an artificial intelligence specialist warned manufacturing execs that the unprecedented volume of data coming from operations now presents an urgent need to augment human analysis with AI: There is too much data for one person to analyze, he warned, and manufacturers are missing the opportunities for process and quality improvement.
But, then, what is the role of humanity in such an organization? That question must surely come soon. In fact, we’re already sensing it. When we wonder about the future of our businesses, are we not really wondering about our own futures?
Technology alters our individual priorities. It recalibrates our certainty about the challenges we address, and it encourages us to defer our judgment to the coldest sort of rationality. We must set our own priorities, according to our own principles, reasonably and intelligently.
Reason is a virtue that we cannot defer or assign. We may trust technology to simplify our efforts, and we may rely on it to inform the decisions we make. But decisions have to be guided also by understanding, including the sort of understanding that experience provides, and they have to incorporate a commitment to accepting the consequences that follow.