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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Miracles take a little longer
Article Type: Viewpoint From: Assembly Automation, Volume 28, Issue 2.
To sum up the assembly R&D activities in a nutshell, one could say that it has been a very active period, and solidly summarised within the recent roadmapping efforts. This does not mean that actual industrial developments have suffered in any way, for these projections and outlooks for the future are borne from in-depth research and development work as well, both in Europe and abroad. So, with all these studies and analyses to go on, one could come forth with a major statement for the future. The truth is that what really struck me this past year does not come from any of these studies, which I will return to in a minute. What did have a vast impact on me was a single statement put forward during a tough project meeting. Several engineers, from both academia and industry, had met to discuss the next steps to be taken within a major European R&D project. A group of us had proposed a set of clear objectives based on a bold, yet well consolidated vision. This was met with the following statement: “No, because I simply do not believe in miracles!.” After a short period of disbelief, and a slightly longer one of self-criticism (well, it might be correct after all..), I have to admit that most of us were left utterly gutted. The fact is, most of us had recently terminated such a roadmapping effort as well, which somehow had contributed to forming the proposed (and rejected) research idea. Were we idealists on a foolish crusade? Not really ...
This alarmed us enormously. A phrase of such importance bears with it two main consequences, one at scientific level and the other at leadership level. This is best viewed if we recollect what the roadmapping efforts have summed up for us, that is publications such as the Manufuture, FutMan, EumechaPro, EUPASS, microSapient, and other roadmaps. And a few more. They are not precisely a scarce commodity, so I do assume most of us have encountered at least some of them. These publications clearly underline that assembly in Europe and the OECD countries needs major efforts and clear, strong visions if we are to maintain a given standard of living: the backbone of our societies is industry, in which assembly probably plays a major role as most core knowledge is held within the assembly processes.
In a very globalised world of cut-throat competition, the big corporations may well outsource, diversify, and re-structure their operations. This may not have such a major impact on Europe. Why? Because European industry consists primarily of small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs), which are not likely to behave in a similar manner due to economic, social, and technological reasons. These SMEs, which are our real backbone, will suffer enormously due to the globalisation trends. If we add the European demographics to the equation, which clearly point out an ever-increasing shortage of labour and increasing taxation levels, the picture becomes alarmingly gloomy. In fact, it would seem to me that if there is anything in particular that we may need, it is precisely a miracle! But we are scientists and technologists, so I will attempt to calm my passions and revert to sense ... and the indications published in the roadmaps. So, what is a technological miracle?
Laymen have, year after year, acclaimed technological success stories as miracles. I guess flying was regarded as fantasy until it was achieved, and the same must be said of computers, space travel, modern surgery, genetics, and so forth. I will leave long discussions on what forms technological and scientific revolutions to the experts; I believe Thomas Kuhn, Alan Chalmers and his colleagues have elaborated ever so well on the subject. What strikes me as very obvious is that any technological revolution is actually the evolution of a vision into a practical perspective: it will succeed if all the stakeholders will formulate a potential gain from such a vision, and thereafter define the steps and objectives required to attain such goals. This is why we write roadmaps. To attain this, the original vision must be maintained, a feat often accomplished by people with very stubborn character and intuitive minds. So, from a R&D point of view, if we do not want to believe in miracles we should definitely change our profession. Miracles happen, not because of divine intervention, but because gifted individuals will maintain their beliefs and intuitions against a world which is hell-bent on continuing to do things as usual. As a scientist, this is almost an obligation.
The second consequence of “not believing in miracles” is, potentially, even more devastating. In times of trouble, or difficulty, the most infective diseases of all are not stagnation but doubt and fear. I believe any military commander would agree with this statement, and after more than 20 years in R&D, I can assure most readers that current industrial competition does draw similarities to conflicts: we are living in an age of very high-intensity technological competition, in which companies fight daily for their survival. In this respect, great leaders are always the ones that will not only follow their colleagues into the fray, but will also do so after having effectively imparted a vision onto all of their members. On the simple scale, this is why companies create their mottos and why advertisements are so effective. But even greater feats may be achieved with such an approach: companies can conquer vast markets (Henry Ford), nations can change decades of misdirection (Nelson Mandela), and worlds may be provided with the force to prevail (sic). Good leadership is, therefore, not having the power to enforce your thoughts onto others, but having the ability to transmit your visions and beliefs in such a way that people will follow you of their own free will. Once this occurs, the common citizen will most definitely call it a miracle.
This edition of the journal will, I assure you, not be as philosophical. Articles which describe the visions which caused such a debate will be proposed, along with more applied and proven approaches. As such, we should bear in mind that this work is often explorative and investigative, thus not promising any industrial breakthrough within the next couple of years. Unfortunately, due to space constraints, it is only a small sample of the work being done globally within assembly R&D. However, it is representative of the main visions being proposed today. It is work that has been initiated from the results drawn from the roadmaps mentioned earlier, and if inserted into larger, well-led endeavours based on a commonly accepted vision of the future, may well lead to a suitable evolution of our assembly automation equipment into adaptable, cost-effective solutions for all types and forms of producers. The rest is up to our ability to believe, and convince the community at large, that we may achieve such a breakthrough. Miracles, basically, are often not of divine origin but the result of intuition, stubbornness and very hard work.
Mauro OnoriThe Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden