Playing Catch Up

June 19, 2013
People improve the world Not all progress is good for us Restore confidence, trust 

One of the important realizations I’ve made over several years of writing about manufacturing is that there is always some astounding new capability to be introduced, some new performance standard to be established, and some new product to be unveiled – and these arrivals will change how the work is done.

As simple as it sounds, this observation is the premise of every issue of FORGING: we aim for readers to be intrigued, engaged, and informed. We want you to know more about the subjects that matter to you and the work you do.

In this issue, for example, you may learn how a fairly basic forging technique has become a critical step in The Timken Co.’s strategy to increase steel production. Or, you may read a useful explanation of how billet-heating systems can be designed to improve material throughput, thus making a forging operation more competitive.

And, in each issue this space is used to offer insights on manufacturing, hoping to place specific concerns into a more general context. So, a corresponding point to my realization about technological progress is that people don’t change very much at all.

For one thing, most people retain a fascination with progress. Along with the instinct to make our work easier and our lives more satisfying, that’s what drives the efforts that lead to process improvements. The world gets better because people apply themselves to problems, and through their dedication solutions emerge.

In the past decade or so a realization has dawned that not all progress is good, or rather, it’s not good for us. I’m not questioning the value of the networks and machines that have been developed and that we use. Nor am I implying anything about all the gadgets and tools that people engage to simplify their tasks or fill the gaps in their daily routines, or just to amuse themselves — though I think the prevalence these diversions indicates something more worrisome: the separation of technology from understanding.

Each time we let some system or device complete a task for us we lose a bit of control over the results. Step by step, we lose our understanding of what is happening, and why.

For most of history, the pace of progress was set by human ingenuity and the will of societies to accept the changes that technology made possible. The pace of those changes picked up considerably over the past 300 years or so, and that’s been undeniably good. The forging industry, as we’ve documented in recent issues, has made extraordinary progress, especially through the 20th Century. That record provides a critical corollary to the general proposition about progress: It has to serve a purpose, and we have to recognize the purpose in order to benefit from progress.

To me, this explains the widespread anxiety about Big Data. We don’t know what information is “out there,” or who has it, or what they may do with it – and that makes us vulnerable to our own doubts. The technology gets faster and more powerful, making us feel weaker. The current crisis over data mining by government and businesses, and the abuses of power that follow, also makes clear that our reliance on technology has eroded our confidence in other people. The circumstances that brought us to this moment in time will not be remedied until we are able to restore some sense of control over our own goals, our trust in each other, and understanding of the purposes and effects of all the systems we’ve put in place around us.

Which is a long, long way of explaining that we have a lot of progress to make if we’re going to overcome our technological anxiety. We cannot beat technology at what it does best. We’ll have to become better people — more trusting, more engaging, and more understanding — if we’re going to catch up with the pace of change.