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Technology vs. Economy and Human Nature

It’s not enough for technology to work economically, it also has to shift cultural norms.
Jamie Gooch Jamie Gooch

Annoyed voices fill the gate area at the airport terminal as I write this. They’re annoyed because our early-morning, 45-minute flight from Cleveland to Chicago is delayed by at least two hours due to a maintenance issue. The mechanics who can hopefully address the issue and get us to the Windy City are flying in from Columbus.

The gate agents are getting annoyed, too. I can hear it disguised in their tone as they redirect questions like “Why don’t you have mechanics here?” and “Don’t you have another plane?” with polite offers to help the would-be passengers make their connections. The customers asking such questions already know the answers, just like they know the gate agents aren’t responsible for the mechanical problem on the plane. It doesn’t pay for an airline to keep extra mechanics and airplanes on standby, just in case a problem arises. The travelers are tired and upset, and feel the need to vent their frustrations.

I’m tired and a bit upset myself. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to catch the early flight so I could attend a conference today. I use my suddenly free time to edit the articles in this issue, reading about the promise of connected technologies to provide, among other benefits, predictive maintenance. Knowing that airlines already have robust predictive maintenance plans in place and that the aircraft’s maintenance problem might have been avoided with the right stack of new technology does little to ease my frustration. “Why didn’t the airline use sensors, Big Data analytics and high-performance computing in an integrated platform to fix the part before it failed?” I want to ask the grumpy business exec sitting beside me at the gate. I don’t. I already know the answer. I’m just venting my frustrations.

Technology, Time and Money

The experts who are supposed to know these things say the market for the Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to double its install base between 2015 and 2020, reaching 75.4 billion in 2025. I have no reason to doubt them. One of the best things about editing Digital Engineering is the opportunity to see, first-hand, mind-blowing examples of companies using cutting-edge technologies to design better products and systems, improve efficiencies and cut costs. One of the worst things about editing DE is experiencing how many companies are not using cutting-edge technologies to design better products and systems, improve efficiencies and cut costs.

I know it’s still early for the industrial IoT. I know it’s complicated and expensive to rework and integrate sprawling legacy systems and processes. However, I also know the amazing feat of engineering that is human flight is too often a frustrating experience at best.

Cultural Challenges

The captain of the plane has arrived at the gate. He does not look annoyed. He looks chipper. You might think this would annoy me further, but I’m glad he isn’t upset by something as trivial as a two-hour delay. We don’t need a cranky pilot or an unsafe plane. As he heads through the security door, the gate agent announces that he is going to speak with the maintenance staff about the repairs. Also, we should feel free to help ourselves to some free snacks while we wait.

The announcement has the intended effect. A confident, experienced looking person in a snappy blue uniform, complete with a cap, is on top of the situation. Plus, there are free snacks. Grumbles are muffled by Cheez-Its and drowned out by bottles of water. Sometime later the agent announces that boarding is beginning. The plane will arrive in Chicago 15 minutes earlier than the originally estimated delay. The airline under promised and over delivered, in a way.

Time will tell whether the industrial IoT has done the same. I wonder which captain of technology is taking charge and proving that their products provide an acceptable return on investment—that the industrial IoT does pay. I wonder how long it will take. I wonder which ones are taking the complaints of their clients’ customers into account during product development.

Then the boarding process begins. I take a drink of my free water and keep typing. I’m in the back of the plane, so I’m in no hurry. I’d just have to wait anyway as people seated in front of me who boarded first block the aisles while trying to squeeze their carry-ons into the overhead bins.

It’s not enough for technology to work, or for it to make sense economically. It also has to shift cultural norms that tend to embrace the status quo.

Jamie Gooch is editorial director of Digital Engineering. Contact him via [email protected].

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About the Author

Jamie Gooch's avatar
Jamie Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the former editorial director of Digital Engineering.

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