Adam Dales, Siemens PLM

For technical communicators on our career paths, the more it changes, the more it can’t remain the same!

All technology today has a big “Under Innovation” sign hung around its figurative neck. And the disruption is getting more extreme, more accelerated by the day. It’s dizzying sometimes, especially for a population of professionals such as ours who may be getting up in years (at least here in Israel, which I state more as a personal observation than anything based on statistics). Yet it looks like we’re in good company. The population of most Western countries is tilting to seniors, due to lower birth rates. So the more than half a billion over-65s in the world (a number that’s expected to triple in the next 30 years) are finding themselves extending their careers, all the way into their 70s as the ‘social safety net’ shrinks. There are now fewer younger people to enter the work force, so less salaries for social welfare deductions to benefit the older set. This constraint-driven change to the ‘social contract’ has the close-to-retirement generation now postponing heading off to butterfly nets and beach chairs. How is this growing army of delayed retirees going to find the strength to keep working day in day out, for years to come? At factories, supermarkets, warehouses, and offices? The old gray mare isn’t what she used to be!

Welcome to the era of Industrie 4.0! With the arrival of the Smart Factory, plants will be self-organizing and run autonomously, and robots will do the heavy lifting, repetitive tasks, and whir around the space to fetch bulky parts. The humans will be occupied in the finer aspects of assembly work that require our superior brain/eye/hand coordination and skills.

Of course it will take human creativity and intelligence to develop the processes and procedures and plan them into being. And as for information workers, we’ll be there to study and document the processes to make them visible: by creating work instructions; and repeatable: by the establishment of new factories.

In the Industrie 4.0 vision of manufacturing, the pervasive networking of people, things, and machines can create completely new production environments. Huge volumes of data are generated by sensors, cameras, and actuators placed on machines and parts in the assembly area. Information developers are involved in helping transform massive data into smart data. We help to transfer the know how to create systems that can digest the data and make ‘heads and tails’ of it. With improved efficiency, more sense can be derived from big data, turning it into a platform for increasingly complex projects. The recently launched Mars rover is an example of mining untold terrabytes of information from diverse disciplines and creating a successful and unprecedented mission of landing a research vehicle on a distant planet.

The technical documentation created by the information experts on that project was extensive and mission critical, and it benefited from the maturity and years of experience of the members of the documentation team.

Going further forward, production systems will operate with even greater flexibility, and the thinkers and designers of future manufacturing processes will model new systems after some innate human assets: we’re full of skills, quick to learn new capabilities, as well as flexible in responding  to changes around us. These systems will be cognitive production systems, emulating human mastery of the PCA loop – Perception, Cognition, and Action. As humans, our keen perception of new stimulus leads to rapid cognitive processing and then deriving a course of action. Similarly, the technologies of tomorrow will be able to determine the meaning of events and conditions perceived in the production environment and come up with the optimum decision for action. And these technologies will be a big change for information developers, who throughout our careers have observed the function and operation of software and then explained how to use it. It seems that our focus will soon turn to observing and understanding PCA traits in humans. In the first phase, we’ll be describing them to the innovators of manufacturing design to aid them in their mapping from the human paradigm to the comprehensive factory. And once these future factories are operating, we’ll be called on to explain the different processes to the managers and operators, with emphasis on the human PCA aspect that will underpin the workflow. We’ll see a shift from our younger years when we had been involved with the PTA, to our forever young un-retirement years when we’ll be focused on PCA!

Unbeknownst to me when I submitted this article, about technical writers and delaying retirement, JoAnn was in the throes of – retiring! I’m honored that my article was one of the last that she laid her editing finger upon, at least as founder and mover of the influential CIDM organization. The legacy she created for information development professionals and academia was compellingly detailed by Dawn Stevens, the new CIDM director, last month. Though I’ve never met JoAnn in person, I remember when she video-ed a message to our tech writer professional gathering in Israel, maybe 10 years ago. Hundreds of us sat in the auditorium watching her speak from her overarching knowledge as she provided us with important professional insights. And I still remember her concluding with the word “Shalom” as she raised two fingers in the peace sign. And so I wish JoAnn shalom and success in her continuing endeavors.