Episode 2 - This Product is Thoroughly Pizzled 😉

Newsletter Jan 24, 2024

Now that the World Economic Forum 2024 Davos dust has settled, it seems a good time to unpack a couple of hot topics at my favorite intersection of IT, SCADA and telecommunications.

I’ll spare you a detailed rehash of the mainstream talking points. Suffice to say we can all agree the whole Generative AI spiel occupied center stage, with the usual outrageous claims and hype. There were the usual platitudes about humanity and society, token offerings of elite-level sympathy as we confront a profound shift in the way we produce, consume and trade amongst ourselves. The future of workers in industry seems to be an area of concern because no one really wants to see masses of destitute machine operators. But, it seems some folks believe this to be inevitable. All the talk about “lights out manufacturing” is where the discussion got interesting. There was even a nice demo from Western Digital’s factory in Penang, Malaysia to showcase the use of AI augmented manufacturing operations inside a dark factory.

And that’s when I remembered a classic 70 year old sci-fi short story from my favorite author Philip K. Dick, “Autofac”. I wonder if humanity should have to plan for a “this product is thoroughly pizzled” moment?

Believe me, I really like the idea of “lights out” operations. By eliminating a lot of the drudgery and repetitive labor from the factory floor we ought to be able to improve our quality of life and devote our time & energy to more fulfilling activities. At least that was the theory when I was growing up in the midst of the home computer revolution just before the dawn of the Internet age. So why do so many feel anxious about doing things differently in manufacturing, is it because we are attached to the old habits or is it because we haven’t yet figured out the new roles, responsibilities and skillsets that tomorrow’s industry requires? Or are we just scared of AI taking away jobs and leaving us with nothing to do?

See, there are two key issues here:

  1. A demographic shift as the old 20th century analog generation passes the torch to the new 21st century digital natives. If we are going to prevent the loss of institutional memory we need to spend time together and learn from each other (a combination of mentoring and reverse mentoring).
  2. A gaping hole in advanced economies due to almost 40 years of deindustrialization. The factories closed, skilled operators and technicians moved into service sector work and lost their proximity to the factory floor. So our kids don’t really have a feel for machinery, equipment, instrumentation and control systems. But it’s not too late, there are enough of us out there who can bring perspective and context. And again, this requires a renewed focus to remember what has been lost and become guardians of institutional memory.

P.S. you’ll probably want to take a look at this panel discussion organized by AIHouse during Davos 2024. Some great insights, admitted biased towards large corporations. It would be good to include smaller manufacturers, integrators and service providers in the conversation.