Under Control


I act as chairman on behalf of a survey being done to determine which technologies are crucial to the future of U.S. manufacturing. The Delphi survey is meant to ascertain which U.S. technology should be shielded and which should be shared with the rest of world.

The chair first compiles a list of experts. Typically, no more than 50 are chosen. Questions are presented to these experts. (The questions are designed by the chair to be non-leading. This is impossible, but we do our best.)

A short time later, the compiled survey results are put before the same experts. They then seek to "agree" as to the reasonableness of the finding. Of cause, the whole process is riddled with subjectivity, and my mathematician friends complain mightily about the process methodology. But it seems to work pretty good.

In any case, we proceed. Early acoustic communications with some of the experts indicated that they fall into four camps. We labeled them "consensus," "offshore," "laymen," and "futurists." The same set of questions identical to each group, and we consolidated the results for each tendency and for the group as a whole. A sample of questions runs as follows:

The consensus group reflected the views of the popular press. America is supreme in manufacturing technology and needs little, if any, help from others. The need to protect ourselves from others intent on stealing "our" technology is of primary importance. Some of "today's" technologies frequently mentioned were total quality management, sensors, software and CAD. "Future" technologies for this group include space-age materials, parametric design and autonomous agents. A xenophobic attitude seems to dominate this group's responses.

The offshore group, composed mostly of German and Japanese experts, seemed more intent on citing narrow, specialized areas. Their "today" list included fuzzy sets, neurons, JIT, and vision. Their "future" list looks to standards as the primary technological need, i.e., "You can't hit a moving target." Their responses suggest a belief that standards help America and penalize others. "Future" issues mentioned include ultraspeed machine tools, ceramics, sensors and software. Notable lacking in an appreciation for systems integration and systems software.

The futurists hold opinions much different than those of the consensus group. The futurists group includes representatives of National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, academia and users. Many opined that America has a poor competitive position in manufacturing technologies, and that we have little to shield from others and much to learn. What they believe worked to our advantage was our ability to move quickly and with agility. Key "today" are software, smart chips, industrial computers and innovation. The "futures" holds out the promise of autonomous agents, virtual reality, genetic software and neural nets.

My favorite group is the laymen. They are the most difficult to survey, often pleading ignorance or time constraints. We had to resort to face-to-face interviews, and results are fascinating. According to this small but significant group, America has to "today" issues. These were settled long ago. The "future" needs of both America and the world are only two: intelligent systems and Nuclear Power.

What surprised me most in the results were the discrepancy between the consensus group and the futurists, and the idea that standards threaten America's position, My summary of the results would be: America has software, systems and innovation knowledge; our destiny will not be determined by single-point technologies, but our agility.

For further information on the USA21 study, contact Charles Hudson at E-mail: CHudson@ncms.org or fax: (313) 955-1150.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine May 1994 Page 19


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