Don't Drive Into the Future Looking Into the Rear View Mirror

Sept. 15, 2014
A lack of imagination on the part of industry continues to keep the future a surprise, so it's important that companies actively prepare for it.

A recent "digital conference" hosted online by ABB Automation and Power World gave attendees helpful information on how companies can thrive using emerging technology to exploit the changing face of industry. As such, experts spoke on technology topics ranging from implementing predictive maintenance to reducing the risk of arc flash, specifying smart components, and merging automation and electrical systems. A keynote speech summed these topical threads by telling manufacturers they need to start looking with fresh eyes at the future.

Even though the future is inherently unpredictable, studying it can give companies and individuals the capability to improvise with greater intelligence, says Futurist Richard Worzel of research firm FutureSearch.

"Looking back, it's easy to see that the future almost always catches us unawares even though bad events had already been forecast by competent individuals and organizations," he explains. "Clear evidence of this comes from incidents such as the terrorist attacks of 2001, hurricane Katrina, and the I-35W bridge collapse."

A lack of imagination continues to keep the future a surprise, so it's important to actively prepare for it, say Worzel. "Analyzing forces that are going to drive change in manufacturing helps companies decide what actions to take to survive and thrive into the future."

Topping the list is the global economy. Over the past 30 years, about half a billion people moved from abject poverty to the middle class, most of them coming from China, continues Worzel. And improved communication via the Internet let India shake up customer service in the West. Also, after the government of Brazil stabilized, the country has made a very successful move to take global leadership in many different agricultural products.

But developing countries believe that because they have come so far so fast, they will continue to do so, says Worzel. This thinking is false. "For example, China's rapidly aging population will curtail the growth of the country's labor force, so the country won't be able to sustain its economic momentum much past the next 20 years."

How does this relate to organizations, you ask? "What's past is past, so start watching for new developments and players," cautions Worzel. "For instance, the lower cost of energy brought about by fracking and a glut in natural gas has manufacturing moving back to the U.S."

Another force to reckon with: the next technological revolution. For instance, consider Moore's Law, which is now thought to be too conservative. Not only is the rate of change accelerating, the rate of acceleration itself is increasing. So say you spend $800 on a computer today—in ten years you will be able to buy a computer that is roughly 1,000 times faster for the same amount of money.

In addition, robots in all forms will continue to emerge into our everyday lives. One example is a robotic "mule" built for the U.S. military which has the sole function of carrying infantrymens' packs. The Japanese currently lead the world in developing humanoid robots, some of which are said to learn by interacting with humans and "watching" their behavior.

And 3D printing is a force that will continue to revolutionize manufacturing. "In a lot of cases, it can make more sense for designs to be sent over the Internet and manufactured locally as opposed to mass producing millions of widgets and shipping them around the globe," says Worzel.

Other forces to contend with include a changing workforce. As more and more so-called boomers retire, horror stories abound about the resulting loss of institutional memory. "'Generation Y' individuals are stepping in, and they think and behave differently than the generations before them," says Worzel. "This means future indicators should focus on whether the work is getting done rather than whether a time clock is getting punched."

In addition, women are now starting more businesses then men and their businesses are more than twice as likely to survive. "Male engineers and technical types had better learn how to accommodate and respect women among their clients and suppliers and in their own organizations," continues Worzel. "Unfortunately, most organization still employ an age-based, male-oriented hierarchy. But those that can build on the strengths of diverse workers can garner a distinct competitive edge. You must redesign your company for the future instead of clinging to the past."

Finally, consider that in a 2011 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that the U.S. will need to invest $1.7 trillion between 2011 and 2020 to rebuild the country's aging dams, roads, bridges, water lines, and sewage systems. "But this is not happening, which means that trouble is bound to come unless companies can exercise foresight intelligently."