The Ghost Town
I recently was on a motorcycle ride to Bodie, a gold rush ghost town in California that is now a state park. I was fortunate enough to be with Mark, who apart from running motorcycle adventure rides, who is also is a bit of a gold rush history buff. He told a story about how electricity was perceived during the boom days at Bodie.
Electricity first came to the gold rush mining towns in the California desert of the Eastern Sierras in the 1890s and it was, as you would expect, quite a spectacle. It brought with it a major change in the way gold was mined and processed and offered great productivity increases. At the the time there was a common misconception that the electricity power lines had to be run straight because the electricity would shoot out if it there was a bend in the line. Basically it could not flow around a bent or wire that changes direction. Here is a bit more background from Chat GPT: "Did people believe that electricity can't flow through a bent wire in the gold rush towns?"
"One popular misconception of the time was that electricity followed the path of least resistance. In this context, the notion that electricity could not flow through a bent wire might have arisen. People might have believed that the bent shape of the wire created a higher resistance, hindering the flow of electricity."
Considering that this was a new technology that was brought to remote towns where the living, to say the least, was hard and dangerous such a misconception seems reasonable. Yet we can draw some striking similarities with this scenario and the introduction of digital technologies to manufacturing plants. Manufacturing plants are operational islands where financial survival is always a top priority and digital technology is not fully understood, or maybe understanding it is not the most important priority. Like electricity in the gold rush town, its hard to relate to a new technology that has lofty and even ungrounded promises such as "a fundamental change to how we live and operate" and "an order of magnitude productivity increase".
During the 2nd industrial revolution, where we transformed from steam to electricity all plants had an "Electricity Manager". Again Chat-GPT for some wisdom: "what was the role of the electricity manager during the 2nd industrial revolution?"
"Overall, the role of an electricity manager during the Second Industrial Revolution involved overseeing the generation, distribution, and management of electricity. Their responsibilities encompassed technical, safety, operational, and financial aspects to ensure the reliable and efficient supply of electrical power to support industrial and societal advancements during this transformative period."
So clearly we do not have this role in our manufacturing plants today, we simply pay for electricity as a service. Does this sounds eerily similar to the current roles of CIO or CDO in managing digital technology? What is the destiny of IT organization and CIOs? Will XaaS (Anything as a Service) become common place and make IT redundant?
Oh the Skepticism
I tell these stories to most skeptics that I meet in an attempt to explain that a new paradigm requires new thinking. We will not be able to experience productivity increases until we realize that what we have at our hands is so different than anything we have seen before. In other words electricity does flow around bent wires, data is safe in the cloud, citizen developers can build complex systems, you can validate a solution in hours, control of democratized technology is easy, IIoT can be safe, it's also for all size companies, etc. Oh and one more that is quite controversial; MES, LIMS, WMS, etc. are not digital technologies - they are relics of the previous industrial age (industry 3.0). They are what steam was to electricity!
The challenge that I face on a daily basis is how to dispel the myths of digital technology and relieve the skepticism that is inherent in most manufacturing organizations? This is in the perspective of the bigger challenge that is how do we plan to transform industry so they can start capitalizing at the order of magnitude productivity gains. In the words of Søren Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."