E-Commentary -- Swan Song

Jan. 14, 2005
As this column ends, remember, you got zero stock tips here.

Uh oh. I always knew it would come to this someday. After eight years, it's the end of the road, Jack. This is the final installment of this column. Before you all cheer and stamp your feet simultaneously and cause a rupture between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates, triggering a 7.9-Richter-level temblor separating California from the rest of the nation, please be aware that, unlike former President Richard Nixon, you will still have me to kick around as a reporter in these pages. Furthermore, please note that this column:

  • predicted the Great Internet Crash of 2000-2001 in an April Fool's column;
  • never claimed to have discovered the Internet;
  • eschewed the recommendation of a single high-tech stock;
  • placed business strategy before technology;
  • rejected the foolish notion that IT offers manufacturers no strategic benefit or competitive advantage.
In 14 years of covering IT and manufacturing as a reporter and columnist, much has changed, but too much has stayed the same. Among what's changed are:
  • a new level of appreciation for the benefits to be had from software and other technologies;
  • a healthy skepticism of what technology can and can't do;
  • a renewed emphasis on the gains to be derived from process improvements;
  • Microsoft's Windows operating system (several times);
  • a greater appreciation on the plant floor that IT can be a process enabler.
Among the things that haven't changed much, if at all, are:
  • the disconnect between the general office or corporate headquarters and the plant floor;
  • the degree of hype surrounding most new software applications;
  • the general level of credibility enjoyed (suffered?) by CIOs.
Far be it from me to attempt to predict how technology will be used by business and manufacturing in the future. Remember, as I've confessed in the past, I'm the guy who predicted in the mid-1980s that people wouldn't ever want to talk on the telephone in their cars. But it's a fair guess that manufacturers will continue to advance their use of IT in the coming years. Although today's emphasis is on short-term payoffs from technology, there will come a time when companies are willing once again to invest for the long haul. Make no mistake, those manufacturers that are clever enough to seek and find creative ways to exploit both new and existing technologies will derive both process and strategic gains as a result. Sure, sooner or later, their competitors will figure things out and copy their solutions or purchase look-alike software packages that accomplish similar tasks. That's always been the case with technology: when it works to one manufacturer's benefit, others want to use it, too. When was it ever any different? The bottom line for the manufacturing industries is that, while IT can't make companies instantly better at what they do, once they figure out how to do things better, technology often can enhance the improved processes. An excellent example of this synergy is the current melding of software applications, including niche packages and ERP modules, with lean manufacturing practices. Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, which doesn't use any aspect of ERP in its production area, nonetheless is taking a hard look at software packages that could enable the lean manufacturing leader to operate more efficiently. "We are piloting some tools that will allow us to monitor the health of our process equipment on the plant floor," says Todd Bridwell, general manager of IS at the Erlanger, Ky., division. Even the best find ways to use technology to get even better. Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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