Twenty years ago, tired of the Minnesota winters, I interviewed for a job with a largish aerospace shop in Austin, Texas. The owner was looking for a general manager, and George, the recruiter who set up the interview, warned me that there might be some tough questions. He was right.
I did pretty well until almost the end of the interview. “If you get the job, what’s the first thing you’ll do to increase productivity in my shop?” the owner asked.
It was an unfair question. After all, I’d never seen his shop, so how would I know what needed fixing? In hindsight, I should have told him as much. But I assumed that his shop was much like most shops back then: plagued with hourslong setups, wasted motion and downtime.
I’d just had an argument with my boss about the same thing, having watched the guys walking back and forth between the programming room and the shop floor all morning, their machines sitting idle all the while. “I’d install network cable and put computers on the shop floor,” I blurted out.
The owner was unimpressed. “And how would that help?”
Remember, this was pre-Y2K. If you’re a millennial and that term is meaningless to you, feel free to Google it. Compared with these days of connected everything, it was quite a hoot. There were no smartphones. Floppy disks were all the rage. Google was new, and the internet was often accessed via dial-up modem. Crazy, right?
“If there were more computers out there, people wouldn’t have to walk so far to program their jobs,” I explained, trying to strengthen my position. “They could document their processes more easily; the setup sheets and part drawings would be electronic. And I heard there’s even software out there now that lets you talk to the machine to monitor uptime and collect data and stuff.”
I recently spoke with the director of digital machining solutions for a major cutting tools supplier. You’d likely recognize the name. We talked about a lot of things: Industry 4.0, machine tool monitoring and digitalization. I shared my story with him, as well as my concerns that most shops haven’t changed all that much over the past 20 years.
“Ten percent,” he told me. “That’s roughly the number of companies today that are actually connected to their production floors, have gone paperless and are monitoring their machine tools, collecting data and making decisions based on that information.”
Anyway, I didn’t get the job. It’s just as well because I like Arizona, which is where my family and I ended up, a lot more than Texas. I still wonder about it, though—if my then-radical ideas would have borne fruit. I like to think so.