Managing the Ecosystem

As digital networks make machine shops increasingly interconnected and interactive, it is quite natural to think of them as ecosystems. But only to a point.

Rain forests, coral reefs, wetlands, prairies—these are classic examples of ecosystems as the term was originally coined to describe. In nature, ecosystems are formed by the interactions of a community of organisms with their physical environment. The interconnectedness of the elements in an ecosystem was an important discovery by biologists. It reshaped our perception of the world around us.

We also are using this term to reshape our perception of other systems, especially those in business environments. For example, while attending the recent Autodesk University event in Las Vegas, I frequently heard the term in technical presentation and discussions. There was talk of IT ecosystems, digital ecosystems, manufacturing ecosystems and supplier ecosystems.

Of course, this was intentional. Autodesk’s software products appeal to professionals who have ideas for making things. The company’s strategy is to develop new tools for collaboration and cooperation in a digital environment—in other words, to build ecosystems for designers, inventors, engineers, manufacturers and others.

In fact, as we move toward the so-called Industrial Internet of Things, our factories and shop floors will become more like natural habitats in which the elements function much like living organisms. People and machines will have broad and immediate awareness of changes that influence productivity. The results, we hope, will be better options and more effective decisions.

In this context, the attributes of an ecosystem to be emulated in a factory include:

Sensitivity. Sensors to emit and detect significant changes in conditions.

Responsiveness. Devices or practices that react to changes appropriately.

Adaptability. The capability to make processes more fit for survival through auto-learning and evolutionary self-improvement.

Sustainability. Use of resources (material and energy) that requires minimal replenishment.

Community. Mutually beneficial relationships that promote collaboration, cooperation and constructive competition on the shop floor and across the supply chain.

However, manufacturing ecosystems are not entirely like natural ones. In nature, things just seem to happen. The sun comes out. The flower opens. The bee finds the nectar. Honey is made. All is sweetness and light! Manufacturing ecosystems, in contrast, are artificial. They must be constructed with rational intent, and designed so that elements are interconnected and interactive for a purpose. Regardless of how natural a manufacturing ecosystem may seem, it must be governed and directed by minds focused on achieving consciously determined results.

That manufacturing ecosystems must be actively managed makes them more like gardens, which can be seen as managed ecosystems. However, it is not too radical to imagine that we can manage these manufacturing ecosystems so that they flourish, and thus meet our material needs as well as our human aspirations.