Coming Out Ahead With Smart Processes

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During a recent interview with Dr. Tim Rodgers that focused on supply chain management, the conversation also touched on smart factories. We’ve included Tim’s insights on smart processes here.

Dr. Tim Rodgers is a faculty instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Leeds School of Business. Before joining the faculty at Leeds, Dr. Rodgers worked in a variety of senior positions in operations and supply chain management at both multinational corporations and mid-sized companies.

Barry Matties: Do you see automation as the big equalizer here in America? There’s got to be a push for this as we’re seeing smart factories, and such. 

Tim Rodgers: Certainly, the companies that are investing in smart factories, smart technology, and more automation are going to come out ahead. I’m seeing a lot more of this in China than in the U.S. Part of that is because it’s become a national imperative; the national government is supporting that push toward smart factories, whereas in the U.S., it tends to be more of an individual company initiative. I’m a little bit worried. I used to believe that we didn’t have a lot to fear because American ingenuity and engineering would figure out the next best way to manufacture and those new technologies would derive from the U.S.

I’m a little less optimistic now, just because we’re only seeing some smart factory islands and some innovations around the Internet of Things. All of that is wonderful, but it’s not very well coordinated. It’s meant to benefit individual businesses. I’m sure there are some academic partnerships that are helping to drive automation, but it’s piecemeal as opposed to what we see in China. 

Matties: I wonder what the motivation will ultimately be, because if you can still go to China and buy it cheap, why invest in a smart factory here?  

Rodgers: That’s a good point. It’s a significant investment, and it’s also a significant change in the way these factories are being run. In some cases, the technology itself already exists. We don’t have to invent anything new, but actually implementing it is still more expensive than just buying it off the shelf. We’re always going to take the path of lowest resistance.

Matties: Maybe, as we see, there’s an acknowledged shortage of engineering labor for implementing a smart factory. 

Rodgers: Yes, there’s a lot of emphasis on employment, which I think is important. I understand why people are worried, but these smart factories will require fewer people to run them. If our emphasis is on employment—keeping more people and just growing the size of the labor force or trying to save old 20th century jobs—we’re going to miss the bus completely.

This portion of the conversation originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of SMT007 Magazine. Look for the full interview with Tim Rodgers in an upcoming supply chain issue of this magazine. 


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