A little help for those who share my aversion to “digitalization”

The phrase I love to hate

By Paul Studebaker

My job is slinging words, and while there are others who do it better, I take it seriously and consider my ability one of my few points of pride. I can explain most complex topics clearly, logically and succinctly, and in a way that has even won national awards. So, you can imagine my frustration when I just can’t get a grip on something, especially something technical (I’m an engineer) related to automation and control.

One such topic is the proportional integral derivative (PID) control algorithm. I get the P and the I, but somewhere around D my grip loosens and I have to rely on people who really understand it—who live it and breathe it like Greg McMillan—to clarify it as easily as a casual conversation with you, our esteemed readers. Near as I can tell, he really outdid himself in this issue’s cover story. Near as I can tell.

Another such topic is Industry 4.0 (aka smart industry, Made in China 2025, the Industrial Internet of Things, etc.). I certainly get it in the superficial way we all understand it, but I can’t help but catch glimpses of another dimension—like looking at an Escher or op-art print, but not quite being able to see the whole picture.

It doesn’t help that my gut reaction to all the hype is to just hate it. I’m at the age when change is always uncomfortable, and when the rise of technology—the Internet, social media, smart phones, etc.—seems to imperil everything I learned and value. It’s almost intolerable. The word “digitalization” just gives me the creeps. Yet, here it is, and when those glimpses come through (for me, as Waze, instant weather reports, flight updates, email in my pocket, etc.), it’s not half bad.

Still, when a press release for a new book came across my desk (and by desk, I mean desktop, and by desktop, I mean email stream) with the title, “A global view of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: How the phrase we love to hate is changing people’s journeys worldwide,” what caught my attention was “the phrase we love to hate.” What kept it is this book attempts to provide a coherent narrative of where it started, what’s happening now, and where it’s going, without the hype. It helps that the book can be downloaded free of charge.

“4.0 Sight: Digital industry around the world” is by Mark Proctor and Jonathan Wilkins, managing and and marketing directors at EU Automation, a global supplier of new, reconditioned and obsolete parts for many brands of automation systems.

The book starts off by connecting Industry 4.0 with Society 5.0, a label that originated in Japan and according to its ministry, “envisions a human-centered society that balances economic development with the resolution of social problems by a system that integrates cyberspace and physical space.” This is about a lot more than just more efficient manufacturing.

The authors then do a world tour of levels of progress in different countries, starting in Germany and the U.K. and proceeding through Europe, the U.S. and finally China. Along the way are concise summaries of the relevant technologies, examples of applications and interviews of experts and rising stars.

Personally, as someone who tends to resist change, I especially enjoyed the observations on dealing with obsolescence and even using it to your advantage. We all are trying to plan and build a successful future while standing in the present (in my case, with one foot firmly in the past), and EU Automation is well situated to help plants do that.

It’s eye-opening and humbling to realize how far and how fast technology is taking us, and we as automation professionals and aficionados have a particular obligation to understand, guide and lead the progression. You did much to build the infrastructure that is making it possible—even inevitable—and for 25 years, I’ve goaded you on.

We owe it to ourselves and society to embrace Society 5.0, and have a vision.

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