Last week, Tulip, the startup I have been scaling up over the past eight years opened its Experience Center in Somerville, Massachusetts. We shared the work we do for hundreds of clients across the globe, amplifying the analytics, quality, learning, and skills development in manufacturing operations. Not just in speeches and white papers, we created interactive experiences where those who show up can touch, feel, and shape the applications that are reshaping the industry. From MIT’s Yo-Yo making class via the Stanley Black & Decker
The typical journalistic response for this event would be “not newsworthy.” But, why? It still takes the average person a tiny bit of imagination to grasp what is happening in industrial tech. But the 400+ people who made it to the Grand Opening or to the Open House discovered something significant. For the first time, manufacturing’s inner operations have been opened up to a broader ecosystem. I shouldn’t yet call it an ecosystem, because that implies these people are all aware of each other. That’s not yet the case. We only just brought them together. And we want more of you to be aware.
You may not realize this but manufacturing is still full of paper-based processes. A factory might have expensive machines, even robots, but workers typically don’t communicate electronically. In fact, operators are often told to drop their wearable technologies in a bag before entering the shop floor. What is that about? Are they afraid you’ll play computer games on the assembly line? For young people, this is especially hard to swallow. Instead, why can’t wearables be seamlessly integrated into the work process, the way they are integrated into our private lives? Changing that requires a joint effort, not just inside each shop floor team, factory, or company, but across companies. It needs an ecosystem. That ecosystem is not in place. We need to build it. If we do, manufacturing workers become knowledge workers, too. But for it to work, you need to join.
What do I have in mind? When I set out to build Tulip, together with my co-founders Rony Kubat and Professor Pattie Maes at the MIT Media Lab, I did not simply want to build a company. The idea was to help transform the industry. Not in the myopic sense that I think one company can become the center of everything, but rather the opposite. By building a frontline operations platform that everyone can plug into, and by building the organizational as well as technical connectors that can make this happen, I wanted to contribute to broadening the knowledge base of the industry. The goal is to let operators themselves figure out what they need. To say it in “MIT language,” I wanted to build the machine that builds other machines and then let others build machines that build their own machines. But in this case, the machine that builds things over all else is actually the human “machine.”
I believe that technology should exist in the background, out of the way of the work process. This is the premise upon which I build all of my technology, with this fluid interface. If you are one of those who think technology is endlessly fascinating, I don’t disagree. But being fascinated is one thing. Letting technology determine how you work on the floor is another. Especially because manufacturers are all different. How can one technology fit us all? What we share is a set of the same problems (e.g., bottlenecks, waste in production) more than a set of common solutions. That’s part of what we need to handle as a manufacturing ecosystem. I call it a frontline operations ecosystem because operations, which are at the core of manufacturing, should no longer be seen as a back office function. Operations are left, front, and center of production and also of distribution. We might as well make operations the key actor in the ecosystem. It is high time.
Over the years I have spent hours and hours talking to operators, engineers, factory owners, and manufacturing companies, small and large. What I now know to be true is that everyone hopes the industry will begin sharing more. Not because sharing evens the playing field but because it is a tide that lifts all boats. However, sharing is not enough. You share in order to build something together. That’s why the community I’m talking about here is not just a best practice platform that can shine like a lighthouse in the dark. None of you are in the dark any more. This is not about beacons of light, it is about joining together as a diverse set of seeds. Plants grow together in a greenhouse if tended by gardeners who know what the growth principles are. Light is surely needed in order to grow, but if we provide a little each, that goes a long way. Some plants grow at night, some grow early in the season, and some arrive later.
When a greenhouse has the perfect balance of plants and growing conditions optimized for a variety of requirements, each finding their own place in the ecosystem, you don’t need a single source of light or thousands of plants. You only need a few gardeners that know what they are doing and who share the burden of the daily chores, providing individual attention when needed. Manufacturing has never had this kind of ecosystem. Perhaps we never needed it. But now we do. Manufacturing is, again, about to take on the role of driver of the world’s economies. Yet, despite all the challenges that make this necessary, we haven’t yet started sharing. That needs to change and it needs to change fast. The way we share has to scale across the world. Which does not mean that it is impossible, only that we need a small critical mass of sharers for each problem we face. At Tulip, we have provided the toolbox for frontline operations. Others will need to provide robots, wearables, electronics components, and materials. But they will have to provide the products themselves, products that will propel each industry forward.
Over the past year, in addition to my daily work of scaling Tulip, I’ve co-authored a book called Augmented Lean. In that book, my co-author Trond Arne Undheim and I provide a management framework for prioritizing humans over machines. Why do I bring this up? Because we hope that this book, which was created by summarizing lessons learned from decades of implementing technology, will provide a new way to look at digital transformation. We don’t have much love for the hype surrounding so-called industry 4.0 technologies and approaches. It might easily have destroyed the ability of manufacturing to, yet again, transform the world. Did you know that implementing this techno-determinist vision of things might take decades? By that time, several manufacturing challenges will never be resolved. Workers will suffer unnecessary complexity in their workday. Older workers might retire early, and new talent might be discouraged from even entering a manufacturing track.
Augmented Lean management makes its organization available to adapt to new circumstances. We have built a platform for human-centric technology that empowers everyone to shape their shop floor experience. Not only do they get easy access to information and analytics dashboards that help them carry out their work more efficiently. Operators are at the center of a process where technology is a tool not an objective. With Augmented Lean approaches, engineers engaged in industrial control, continuous improvement, safety, quality, or Lean management will increasingly build applications themselves with direct feedback from frontline operators.
Frontline operations is a challenging new industrial technology category. In the past, Operations was viewed as a niche (and potentially, boring) management discipline. Now, the frontlines are where industrial innovation is served up, no longer just “stations” to pass by where the annoyingly slow production of goods was happening. If you are on a train journey, without stopping at key stations, what have you really experienced?
I want to start a discussion about the next manufacturing ecosystem. Who wants to join? What problems do you find worth discussing? I find that the more specific it gets, the more debate we can have. I can imagine a whole host of ecosystem discussions that could transform our practice in just a few years. From each system we rely on, to the supply chain, to the talent crunch, to the technologies we so wish for, none of this will change for the better without debate, ideas, and critique. Augmented Lean is available for pre-order now even though it only comes out this fall so we can have a common vocabulary to discuss around. Connect with me and join the Augmented Lean movement!
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