The Perfect Solution
We’ve all been there: scanning the internet, technical publications, or just asking around to find that perfect solution. I don’t care what your business is; robotics, advertising, coal mining, or anything else. If you have ever had a problem, you have very likely been seduced by the idea of a perfect solution. As much as I would love to blame the perpetuation of this myth on our ever-present media-rich culture (and I will later on), a bit of this desire is built into us by nature. When we have a problem or a challenge, our more ambitious nature will envision a solution that doesn’t just “kind of” deal with it, we imagine a solution that addresses every single aspect of the problem and then also add some more good stuff to our situation. Then we imagine that the solution comes together with minimal effort and cost. If we are the ones that are going to implement this solution, we can see it unfolding perfectly with no hangups or issues at all. Okay, maybe we see a couple of hangups, but we also see how easily those are going to be disposed of. If we need to hire the work done because we don’t know how to do it, we imagine that someone else out there does. They will know exactly what we want, exactly how to do it, and it won’t take them very long because they just know how to do all this stuff. They’ve probably seen this a hundred times before, JUST like the way I need to have it done. If you’ve ever spent any time working these kinds of problems, you know that these fantasies are just that; fantasies. When it comes to peddling these types of lofty expectations, never has an industry been more guilty than technology is today.
The Bill of Goods
I’ll just cut to the chase: nearly everyone interested in a technological solution to a problem has undoubtedly had a miracle marketed to them. It’s often advertised as a process akin to magic, unwinding every troublesome knot of the problem with effortless grace. If you are part of the robotics and automation industry, it can take several different shapes. Maybe it’s the robot that is randomly picking complex objects out of a bin and placing them in exacting fixed positions. Guided by a state-of-the-art vision system, the robot seems to be able to see everything and knows where to go, almost as if you just spoke to it what you wanted to happen and it knew before you asked. Or, maybe it’s the vision inspection system that takes one quick look at your part and can immediately show you not only where the blemishes are, but also how bad they are and even how they got there. The way the system is shown you would think that it just “knows how to do that”. If you Google or YouTube applications that you think would mimic your own, you can see these kinds of examples in abundance. Especially in the fast-paced world of technological solutions, this can perpetuate the idea that somewhere out there, somebody knows exactly how to fix your problem. On top of that, they have probably done it so many times that by now it’s even cheap. If we take the expectations to the next level, one can even start to imagine that the solution is as simple as plugging in a piece of smart hardware and/or software. Once we find the right product, we will just be able to basically stand it up in front of our issue and, poof! Problem solved. It’ll just…fix it…right? My experience may be anecdotal, but it’s also voluminous. Basically, technology is being sold as a silver bullet to almost any issue, or at least we are seeing that it is being perceived that way.
“This mentality of the perfect match has become so abundant in our culture that it is easily and abundantly perpetuated in an industry seductive in its promises and misunderstood in its capabilities, just like that of general technology.”
It shouldn’t be any surprise that human beings want to pursue exacting solutions, or even fairy tales ones. Not to get too psychological, but any desire for perfection that we aren’t born with we are certainly encouraged to foster by our culture. I don’t care if it’s with your body, your home, your career, your spouse, or your job, we are constantly being sold the idea that the perfect solution is out there if we could just find it. I regularly hear radio advertisements from a large employee recruiting tool that advertises their ability to find you “the perfect candidate”. Think about that for a minute. A real live company is actually advertising that they can find you the PERFECT candidate. They are straight up telling you that there is a PERFECT job candidate out there, with everything you want, no drawbacks, no problems, all amazing qualities, and all you have to do is FIND them. Dating and match-making websites are just as guilty. The advertisements go on and on about how to meet your “perfect match”. I particularly like how these sites then subtly connect the finding of this solution with your inevitable happiness. Hell, sometimes it’s not so subtle at all.
If you are wondering what all of this has to do with robotics and automation, I’m about to tell you: this mentality of the perfect match has become so abundant in our culture that it is easily and abundantly perpetuated in an industry seductive in its promises and misunderstood in its capabilities, just like that of general technology. We imagine the perfect solution and then we find ourselves endlessly searching the internet, calling service providers, and trying to locate it. With all the hype and examples we find on the internet and those that are advertised to us, it just must be out there, right? I know that the pursuit of perfection is often seen as a virtue in our culture, but I would submit that it is a heavy yoke not worth bearing. Certainly, we should all pursue EXCELLENCE with fervor and integrity, but the difference between perfection and excellence only seems sublte. Excellence leaves some wiggle room for reality, relieving you of the burden of flawlessness. Perfection drives our more obsessive nature to impose unrealistic expectations and demands. Since these ideals can never really be met as they are imagined – that is, perfectly – the only result is stress, anxiety, and disappointment. These states of mind – which extend into your organization and its culture, by the way – are anything but subtle. I’ll hold that case up against any that idolizes the pursuit of perfection.
Playing our Part
The mismatch between expectations and reality isn’t anyone’s fault. We all do it. As an integration company, we certainly aren’t advertising our failures or projects gone bad (that’s not to say that we have any…). We all want to show the best version of ourselves, whether that’s on a date, in a job interview, or on our company’s website. I would never say that there is anything wrong with this endeavor. After all, I wrote and composed most of what you see on this website. I am definitely not one to shy away from showing your best attributes or trying to win over business based on past success, nor would I hold it against anyone else for doing the same. At the same time, particularly in the field of technological solutions, these kinds of showcases can lead to unrealistic expectations by the consumer. Showing a high-speed packaging solution guided by a vision system is very impressive. It’s a testament to the ingenuity of the programmers and technicians required to put that kind of solution in place. The thing that is usually missing, and that which we often quite legitimately don’t want our customers to see, is just how much of a testament that really is. That type of achievement is not easily obtained, nor is the path to it a straight line that is just cookie-cutter out of a textbook. The basic skills can be, but the application of those skills is unique to the particular task and the individual responsible for pursuing it. Put simply: it’s hard to do. Many technological solutions are, and this is what gets lost in the fray. Not that any of us want to show our customers how the sausage is made, so to speak. After all, part of what our customers pay us for is to not have to worry about such things. However, in an industry driven by technological solutions, the absence of visibility to how intelligent humans make that technology actually work is causing an illusion by consumers that technology can “just do that”. Thus the expectations for its performance, ease of use, and cost end up greatly misaligned with reality. This can create headaches not only for integrators, but for the consumer as well.
Where we Really Are
There probably doesn’t need to be a revolution in the technological solutions industry. For the most part, people are getting what they need and paying fair prices for it. At the same time, we would probably all benefit from a bit of a gut-check on how all this new and emerging technology really works. For me, vision systems combined with robots come to mind as something we often see a misconception about. Particularly at trade shows, we are often approached by consumers who want a vision and robot combination to solve their particular problem. The common ask is this: “here is a pile of parts – can a vision system tell the robot to pick up the right ones and put them in this little baggie, and also do it faster than the humans I have can, oh and I have several different sized baggies and they won’t be held stable, and the parts might be different all the time, but since it’s a vision system it can just do that, right? I’m budgeting about $80k for this, which is more than enough, right?” I want to be clear; I am NOT bashing the people who come forth with this conclusion. Particularly at trade shows, the technology is displayed as a magic solution with taglines and signs attached that say things like: “easy to program”, “plug and play”, “fast setup by anyone”. How could people not think that these kinds of solutions are cheap and easy? I don’t want to make us look like we don’t know what we’re doing or something, but I do believe in healthy vulnerability so here it comes: these kinds of systems can be very difficult to program. Despite all the advancements in vision technology, robotics, and programming in general, I have seen even the most experienced and seasoned technicians struggle to get a robot controller to even recognize that it had a camera attached to it. Introduce the complexity of picking up parts from a bin that are randomly placed and intertwined with each other, and you have one heck of a challenge. Smarter people than me have been trying to make that work for years and we are just starting to make some good progress. By all means, there are some systems out there that are running these operations flawlessly. The takeaway is not that it can’t be done, the takeaway is that it is much harder to do than it is made to look. That’s not meant to sound defeatist or negative, but rather I think it helps the consumer when they have accurate expectations of the technology. When anyone walks into a providers storefront with more knowledge, we all benefit. The developers of those types of systems are to be praised for their ingenuity and stick-to-it-iveness. Being a company that prides itself in taking on challenging products, we are well aware of the stumbling blocks that can be encountered along the way, and NO one is immune from that, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable they are. In the end, almost every project out there is unique. Canned solutions only exist in a compartmentalized fashion, insomuch as you can get isolated components that solve your problem. Making them all work together in unison…well, that folks, is where we really make our living.