A Changed World – Challenges and Opportunities

A Changed World – Challenges and Opportunities

2020 started out like a normal year with some chatter about a virus outbreak in China but then events quickly spread and the world, as we knew it, changed for a long time, if not forever.

And while the COVID crisis at first glance has had a major negative impact on our lives I want to focus on some potential opportunities for companies and industries for positive and prosperous changes.

Yes, many low skill jobs will be lost in the service sectors but social distancing, which we better get used to for the foreseeable future, call for more automation and less human interaction.  The news is full of robo servers (origination in Japan) to no contact payments and checkouts and Amazon has become my primary shopping method which works well for everything but clothing but since social distancing involves working from home I can do without a lot of new items to wear.

Our company has been structured decentralized for many years.  Yes, there is a central location and lab where we can develop and test new products, but selling activity, customer support and consulting does typically not require everybody to share a common office and electronic assemblies, lamination stamping and motor winding can be cost effectively subcontracted if we establish long term and fair relationships with our vendors and not just look at the lowest cost.

Thus, when I told customers that we operated a decentralized operation I received blank stares and customers that did insist on visiting were often disappointed as they expected a big office and industrial facility when, in fact, our common office was quite small.  But all our engineers have labs at their homes and we provided state of the art test equipment, computers and communication links so that we could all work together effectively disbursed over a large geographic area.

Yes, it costs more to provide duplicate equipment but these costs are easily offset when the employees arrive at their “office” well rested, where they did not have to wrestle with a stressful and tiring hour long drive in heavy traffic.  The added cost is easily offset in added productivity and when top engineering talent is hard to find you want to utilize every minute as effectively as possible.

Today, I no longer get any blank stares when I talk about how we are an efficient decentralized operation but rather I receive envious looks.

Will I ever travel again?  I simply do not know.  Right now you could not pay me enough to fly on a plane or sleep in a hotel but that is likely to change.  However, I do not miss spending two or three days traveling for a 1 hour meeting, however productive it may be when you have to travel from a remote base like Butte or Helena, MT.

The government, for the most part, has been more open and adept to remote meetings over the past years than industry but that has all changed.  Zoom, Skype and Google meetings are now the norm and even though dress codes are more relaxed I have to find a way to buy some nicer looking relaxed shirts and pants and maybe a buzz cut as I can get that done at home.

But we can save a lot of less productive travel time – yes, you can have some productive quite time on a plane – and put it to more productive use.  Remote meetings are often more organized as they rely more heavily on prepared materials rather than my favorite napkin sketches but touch screen, pen pads and similar goodies allow us to create “digital” napkins and whiteboards where ideas and concepts can easily be generated and shared and we can also easily preserve these sketches and share them with the group.  Thus, we can accomplish high quality meetings at lower cost and less time spend and now it has become acceptable.

One area that we are still struggling with is remote installation and test.  I mentioned Zoom and other platforms above and they are great to see each others pretty faces and for sharing desktops but the cameras, image resolution and latency are often ill suited for real time setup of field installation and troubleshooting.  We are currently testing a system where we can stream bidirectional images and sound at 4K resolution with virtually no latency.  Such a system allows monitoring images of the machinery, oscilloscope traces and other test data in real time and we can even log into our controllers remotely to make setup changes, trouble shoot and test software/firmware changes.  It will, however, require that we send the necessary cameras and streaming interfaces to our customers.  Given the time savings and the increase in customer satisfaction as we can install, service and trouble shoot equipment much faster and much more efficiently these investments in equipment will pay off in a very short time.

Thus, we have created new industries and new job opportunities.  Almost everybody technical that I talk with is busier than ever despite COVID.  I will readily acknowledge that airline workers, the hospitality industry and many unskilled workers are suffering and that begs the question what options do we have.

Many people and politicians are requesting large grants to the airlines that are suffering from a loss of business which they expect to be short lived but I believe that the decline in business travel be permanent as we use the above means and methods to adjust and make our business more efficient with the use of technology and changes in our accepted social business interactions.  Do we spend more money on PPP loans for failing businesses or should we rather support those businesses and industries that can adapt and provide stable employment for the foreseeable future along with job growth and economic benefits?  Do we want to tax successful companies more and force them to move operations offshore that could help us build new employment opportunities rather than drive them away in order to fund large economic life support programs that offer little hope for long term success?

Many do not seem to care if we support policies that place a large number of miners and oil/gas exploration workers in the unemployment lines as they think that these jobs are obsolete and that the transition to “Green New Deal” or any similar program will create many new job opportunities.  But the same politicians worry about flight attendants, hair dressers and waiters whose jobs are becoming unnecessary as deserving of government support.  This logic is too difficult for me to follow plus many of the pie in the sky energy and infrastructure jobs will require job skills and work ethics far above and beyond those that the people whose jobs we are elimination possess  but that is a discussion for another day.

The real question becomes do we spend our money to artificially prop up dying demand and to keep obsolete industries and jobs without a future alive or do we adapt and encourage, foster and embrace the changes that improve our productivity and that potentially conserve energy and reduce green house emissions (commuting, travel, office buildings) and which make our small and large businesses more efficient and that allow our manufacturing base to better adapt to produce domestically and even compete globally, thus creating new jobs and opportunities for the future.

There are no easy answers and we can not ignore the pain of those whose livelihoods are disappearing.  The question becomes are we truly helping or just delaying the pain and agony for short term ideological and political gains with efforts that are bound to fail.

About Author

George Holling

With over 70 publications and 9 U.S. patents on sensorless and efficient motor controls and low-cost power circuits to his credit, George Holling (PI) is an in-demand consultant to many major U.S. and International corporations for motors and drives. At present he holds significant influence in two companies — as technical director of Electric Drivetrain Technologies (2011– present) Moab, UT and as CTO of Rocky Mountain Technologies (2001– present), Basin, MT. Holling is a graduate of the University of Aachen, earning his B.S. (1974), M.S. (1978) and Ph.D. degrees there, while picking up his MBA here at the University of Wisconsin. His career has spanned both the commercial and academic arenas, the latter including stops at (Dean, Computer Science & Engineering) Utah Valley University, 2001 – 2003; and (Adjunct Professor), Western Michigan University, 1997 – 2002. From the commercial side, apart from his current positions, Holling has served as Project Engineer and Product Line Manager, UNICO; Franksville, WI (1978-1981); Project Engineer, General Electric, Medical Products Division, Milwaukee, WI (1981-1983; Manager R&D, Pacific Scientific/Honeywell Motor Products, Rockford, IL (1983-1985); Vice President of Engineering, Regdon Solenoid, Brookfield, IL (1988-1990); President, Advanced Motor Controls, Sun Prairie, WI (1990 – 1999); and Vice President of Engineering, Cordin Company, Salt Lake City, UT (1999 – 2000). Holling has also spearheaded projects for the development of high-efficiency motors and drives up to 400 kW, and has successfully negotiated licensing agreements with U.S., Chinese, Japanese and Indian customers for the licensing of motor and drive technology.

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