The Times Keep A-Changing: Newer Technologies Continue to Affect How Business is Done

September 14, 2018 | The times keep a-changing

It’s no secret that technology in the last few decades has had a profound effect on various businesses and industries. Computers changed the workplace in the 1970s and ’80s, and the internet made waves in communication and trade in the 1990s and into the 21st century.

Innovation chugs along and doesn’t seem to be slowing down as we move from the information age to artificial intelligence and machine learning. From manufacturing and modern offices to cybersecurity and education, newer products and technologies continue to change the face of businesses and industries everywhere.

Manufacturing technology fills a dire need

As a workforce shortage continues to be a problem for manufacturing companies in Iowa and throughout the nation, organizations continue to push technology to slim down processes and make product lines less labor-intensive.

Iowa’s unemployment rate fell to 2.6 percent in August, giving the state the second-lowest rate in the nation. And the current workforce is an aging one, leading to even more concerns down the road. One in every four Iowans is a baby boomer — about 750,000 people — and will presumably retire soon, if they haven’t already.

In rural counties, where many of Iowa’s more than 5,000 manufacturing companies are located, young people are leaving in droves. The so-called “urban sprawl” has created a steady population decline in rural counties and the rise of people in metro and suburban counties throughout the state.

The smaller workforce has forced manufacturers to rely on technology, particularly automation, to keep up with production. “People aren’t moving here, and it’s not going to change,” said Ron Cox, director of Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS). “We have to admit that, and automation, robots and software-assisted machinery are becoming more prevalent. That’s something Iowa manufacturing companies are going to have to embrace if they haven’t yet.

“If you want to keep growing with less people, you’ve got two options: Be a better company than the company next door and steal employees, or automate.” The CIRAS program at Iowa State assists companies in the manufacturing industry through a variety of avenues: consulting work, educational events, access to equipment and much more.

Chris Hill, director of CIRAS’ technology assistance program, also mentioned the worker shortage forcing many Iowa companies to invest in newer machinery. In addition, as manufacturers strive to make their processes more cost- and time-effective, rapid prototyping has become a necessity in the industry.

Manufacturers have always attempted to innovate newer and better products, so creating prototypes — a preliminary model of a product — is a large part of their business. Rapid prototyping is a catchall term referring to a group of techniques used to create a prototype faster and at a lower cost.

Before rapid prototyping, manufacturers spent six or more months creating a new product with many different variations to test what worked best. With rapid prototyping, that timeline has been shortened to days and weeks, allowing companies to put less time and money into the process.

“So now you don’t have to develop four different options over those six months to evaluate them,” Hill said. “Now you see which [prototype] is the most likely candidate to excel in a couple of weeks and then focus all of your efforts on that one product.”

One process in rapid prototyping is 3D printing, which creates products much faster and cheaper than traditional molds. 3D printers, controlled by a computer program, also offer versatility since they can build more than one type of product.

“3D printing is probably the most utilized tool in rapid prototyping,” Hill said. “It’s been so successful over time that it’s now become a common process.”

While the manufacturing industry continues to evolve and improve its processes through technology, many manufacturers, especially those who are averse to risk, may be skeptical to take the leap. But Cox said it’s important to take little steps.

Since most of the automation technology has been on the market for a few years, prices have become much more competitive and affordable.

“It’s constantly looking at the crucial gaps and not trying to invest in everything at once,” Cox said. “They should be investing in the pieces most pertinent to today that will keep them going in a positive direction.”

Delivering education in new ways

The newest members of the workforce have a much different education experience than most current workers, and that’s in part because of how technology is changing the way learning is delivered.

Purdue University Global, a public university operated by the Purdue University system, has been at the forefront, teaching classes online to a wide range of students. The organization has a robust presence in Iowa, with 1,013 graduates, mostly working adults, during the 2016-17 school year.

The trend in education in the last few years has been personalization and easy access, which is aided primarily by technology.

“When I went to school, it was a very one-size-fits-all method of teaching and learning,” said David Starnes, chief academic officer at Purdue University Global. “With technology, we’re now able to make education available at any time, anywhere. It’s on demand today.”

Online learning is nothing new — the Babson Survey Research Group has reported growth in students taking online courses for 14 straight years — but the way learning is delivered on the internet has been refined and improved.

Starnes said there’s been a bigger emphasis on data analytics, with faculty having real-time access to assignments and grades to make quicker decisions and aid struggling students. These programs can also help students stay on track if they’ve strayed from the desired path.

The real-time updates help the institution, faculty and students have the best experiences possible, ensuring better learning and results.

Today’s students have learned more ways to collaborate through technology, which is one of the areas in which incoming employees are lacking, Starns said. Students work in groups online, which better prepares them for a more technologically equipped workplace.

“I think students are more prepared to work in a virtual workplace,” Starns said. “They’ve been exposed to an environment where most or maybe even all of their work has been accomplished through technology. I think employees are better prepared to access tools, solve problems and are more creative.”

Perhaps biggest of all, technology continues to give educational access to people who may not have had the same opportunity 10 or more years ago.

“I was watching this parade of graduates go by and it really hit me,” Starnes said. “Without the technology that we offered today, many of those people wouldn’t get a degree.

“I think students have a lot more opportunities to demonstrate prior learning and save time and money with the technologies we have today.”

Flexibility in the workplace

Much like education, technology has allowed for more flexibility in office spaces and task completion.

Kim Augspurger, president and owner of Saxton Inc., a Des Moines-based company that helps companies design offices to maximize productivity and work performance, has seen a shift in work spaces toward collaboration and community. The change has come about in part because of technology.

“Technology is really a dual-edged sword,” Augspurger said. “For years and decades, we had to come to work and sit in front of a computer, which was attached to technology by a wire. But wireless and mobile technology has really changed where you can work, so you have choice.”

The flexibility has also fueled the rise of telecommuting. According to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 3.7 million employees — about 2.8 percent of the workforce — worked from home for at least half the time. That may not seem like much, but the number of regular telecommuting employees has actually grown by 115 percent since 2005.

While remote work has grown because of technology, that doesn’t mean the workplace isn’t important. Augspurger said face-to-face communication “is the best way to create breakthrough concepts.” In fact, she said more people prefer discussing important issues face-to-face.

“It’s more productive, and it’s the only way to create trust between people,” she said. “Even though technology has allowed us to work from home, in cars and coffee shops, I think the demand for face-to-face interaction is still strong. It can’t be replicated.”

As for how employees work within the office, technology has changed that, too. Organizations have shifted to more shared spaces with interconnectivity to spur collaboration. Meeting rooms for groups of five to eight people — the most common size of work teams, Augspurger said — are becoming more the norm.

Some modern offices also have unowned spaces. Workers can sit and work on their devices anywhere. There are also private rooms for employees to work in a more secluded space, but for the most part, technology has done away with the office cubicle of the past.

“Technology is changing where we work and how we work,” Augspurger said. “It’s all about giving everyone choices.”

More technology, more problems

With the rise of technology and interconnectivity across all industries comes the rise of those who wish to exploit it. That’s why cybersecurity has been top of mind for many business owners around the state and nation.

By 2021, cybersecurity damage is expected to reach $6 trillion, according to Cybersecurity Ventures, a leading cybercrime research publication. The same organization found the cybersecurity threat has triggered a dramatic shift in spending as well, with businesses and organizations expected to invest $1 trillion in cybersecurity from 2017 to 2021.

Steve Healey, the chief technology officer at Pratum, an Iowa-based cybersecurity consulting company, has seen spending increase anecdotally in his role as well.

“We’ve seen a year-over-year increase in security services,” Healey said. “And with that, we’ve also seen an increase in attacks. We’re doing more incident response cases or forensic investigations when companies are dealing with some type of breach and the fallout from that.”

Healey said the biggest change in the cybersecurity industry has been the avenues that attackers take to gain access to networks. With highly automated security services blocking attackers from the back end, phishing attacks have become more prevalent.

Phishing is the practice of sending emails under false pretenses to persuade recipients to reveal personal information or grant access to their systems. An unknowing person may open a link or download a file that infects their computer. Then, since most devices within an organization are interconnected, the infection can spread throughout an entire system.

Wombat Security, a security awareness training company, reported 76 percent of information security professionals said their organization experienced phishing attacks in 2017.

“We’re seeing an uptick in targeted attacks with intruders attempting to breach the entire network through the human element,” Healey said. “They target employees because technology is growing and getting more advanced, so there’s all sort of automated features blocking all of these incoming attacks.”

Healey said training employees on the dangers of phishing will help mitigate attacks.

To keep up with the ever-changing cybersecurity industry, Healey recommends all business owners incorporate it into everyday business processes. The company’s decision-makers should be in communication with technology departments. And new threats should be made known before they hit.

“Business leaders have to own their security,” Healey said. “This is not a problem for the [information technology] teams solely. The business and the executive management teams need to engage with the IT teams to learn how to implement technology.

“They also need to own and really dive into how security is integrated into the culture, the people, the processes and the technology of the organization. Those things are more important and go far beyond the newest technologies or products.”