For those of you who followed the Olympics this summer, you most likely noticed that many swimmers were sporting a very different-looking swimsuit. This suit the LZR Racer by Speedo produced amazing results during the summer games, including being the gear of choice by eight-time gold medal winner and Water Cube Demigod, Michael Phelps. Rumor has it that Speedo even consulted NASA when designing the lightweight, streamlined, fuller body suit.
The winning suits, however, stirred up some controversy and ran into obstacles for a few reasons. First, there was the issue of tradition. The space-aged looking suits were a far cry from traditional bathing suits.
There were also allegiance issues. If you were a swimmer with a Speedo contract, you were in good shape but what if you were sponsored by another company? This leads to the issue of competitive advantage if you were not wearing this suit, were you at a disadvantage before even entering the pool?
Change in any industry seems to stir up dialogue on these same considerations tradition, long-standing allegiances and competitive advantages. For example, take the rise of automation in the food industry. Automation shakes up traditional manufacturing practices. In last month's cover story, I discussed a dairy farm that has completely automated its milking process to the point where cows can milk themselves without the aid of a farmer. In an industry routed in tradition and family-run farms, the concept of automated milking leaves some farmers feeling completely out of touch with their animals, and concerned about the potential implications of this.
Automation also tests long-standing allegiances to paradigms, or the way things have always been done. To survive the various ups and downs of a capitalist economy, many manufacturers have been able to weather the storm by "sticking to their guns" and doing things the way that they feel is best and right. For example, in many cases, this means continuing with the use of human hands in manually packing products. Upon observing this during a recent plant tour, I immediately inquired with the operations manager as to why they haven't automated this process, to which he responded, "Our employees take great care and do a good job why fix what isn't broken?" "Besides," he continued, "most of our employees have been working for us for upwards of ten years."
While the word "change" can at times produce responses that aren't always favorable, it seems as though change is what's necessary in order to move forward in any industry. Whether we embrace it or fight it, we can't stop it; and at the end of the day, those who stay open-minded to new ideas will have the upper hand.
Additionally, like the new swimsuits, automation brings up uncertainties as far as competitive advantages are concerned. Will your plant be able to keep up with other plants that have become highly automated? Investing in automation can be costly and time consuming, but a plant also has to consider the possible cost of not investing and being left behind. Some equipment suppliers in the automation market are promising productivity increases as high as 40 percent which would equate to revenue that would leave you, or your competitors, in the dust.