Get Your Story Straight

I’m finally back home after another swing through the east: Pittsburgh for my annual trip to IndustryWeek’s Manufacturing & Technology Show and Washington, DC for the MEP’s National Advisory Board meeting. The visits were terrific learning opportunities and reminders of just how good we are (and can be) in Wisconsin.

I came back with two critical learnings. First, most people confuse trends and technology, chasing squirrels and becoming fixated with the next new shiny object that comes to their attention. Success depends on the ability to hold a steady course by identifying key trends, deciding why they will affect your situation, and developing how you will deploy the appropriate technology to ride those waves. Second, three key trends will transform every organization in Wisconsin. The combination of the Body Gap, the ongoing improvement of computing power, and exponential change forms a transformational wave that will change how all of us live and work. Our struggle to harness these trends will strain us as we stretch in new ways and determine how we will contribute to an economy that will look very different from today.

Confusing technology and trends can be a critical error. It’s easy to do. Think of it this way: Trends are the waves coming in from the horizon, while technology is the surfboard that allows us to ride those waves. So often, technology is so cool that we’re distracted by a new surfboard, rather than figuring out the best way to ride the wave. Successfully riding the wave requires a narrative about how key trends will affect your situation. Creating that story enables you to bring a bit of organization to a tumultuous situation, putting together a plan to engage the proper technology to create a bright and prosperous future.

As you build your story, here are three major trends to start your narrative. The Body Gap, computing power, and exponential change are ubiquitous and very real. If you’ve read what I’ve written in this space, you know the passion I have for these issues. The workforce will not increase for the next two decades, limiting the options to grow our economy. In fact, we’ve now plowed through the Skills Gap and have landed firmly in the middle of the Body Gap. We’re not only missing the skilled workers we need; we’re also missing the people to develop into those skilled workers.

Computing capabilities and costs have followed Moore’s Law for over 50 years. Capabilities continue to skyrocket and costs plummet – making new technologies possible and portable. Preparing for a recent talk, I found a terrific picture that illustrates this phenomenon. It’s a man with two storage drives – both are state-of-the-art – one circa 1980 and the other a 2017 version. The older relic was the size of a car tire, held 200KB of data, and cost $1 million. The more modern version can be held in one hand, holds 10TB of data and can be purchased for less than $1,000. That’s 50,000 times the capacity at a fraction of the cost.

That progression in computing power and cost fuels explosive change. We are now on the vertical part of the exponential change curve – beyond the capability of any person or organization to keep current on their own. The most successful people and organizations create new ways to learn and collaborate to keep up with these changes, using them to create a new future. My trip to the Manufacturing & Technology Show confirmed these conditions.

The M&T Show is always a great place to see new technologies and approaches. Visitors can see how the “big guys” are looking at the future and the technology heading our way. It’s a time to see transformations from across the country and connect with the people driving those changes.

It was no different this year. Great keynotes from PPG and Titan Gilroy provided new perspectives on harnessing technology and developing the next generation of manufacturing workers. Exhibits and workshops demonstrated the latest technology in 3D printing, virtual reality, connected devices, and artificial intelligence. Change experts from across the country connected to share ideas and find new pathways forward. In all, it was three days exploring the future and finding ways to put new ideas into action.

I use events like this to create my own story about how critical trends and evolving technology will impact Wisconsin manufacturers. It’s clear that future manufacturing success will depend on our ability to develop and build more technologically advanced products, leverage our people in new and creative ways, and reposition our operations to meet future market demands. Much of that technology is still emerging, with larger manufacturers testing its impact on the frontiers of the future.

My narrative focuses on the critical need to drive productivity throughout our manufacturing ecosystem. If the workforce growth follows projections, we will almost exclusively rely on productivity advances for future economic growth. In fact, we will need productivity improvements of over 30 percent to maintain a modest 3% annual economic growth over the next decade. That story drives a structured approach to driving transformations through continuous improvement, automation, and the effective implementation of connected systems. It sets a steady course in a tumultuous world.

It’s time to make your move. Acceleration of the key trends will transform our world and won’t wait for you. Your personal narrative and perspective will put you on a steady path. The picture is very clear: We need everyone to create a prosperous future. Jump in and do your part.

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