By Bahar Ferguson
On a recent trip to Morocco, as we wandered the souks in hopes of finding fantastic, one-of-a-kind, handmade items to bring home, our tour guide pointed out a sad fact: Most all the items sold had been ordered in from China. While great for the travel budget, it was disappointing.
The world has come a long way from the days when artisans crafted the manufactured goods that carried with it the history of the artisan who had crafted it. Masters taught apprentices and people would journey from far and wide to houses of learning specifically dedicated to a craft. Everything from barrels and cartwheels to the whirling gears of clocktowers were handmade and fashioned for use by experts in their respective trades. While many products now lack such character and history, our demand for instant gratification and competitive pricing has shifted how we perceive items and what we will pay for what we want.
It was in the Industrial Revolution and in the years following it, we introduced things like replaceable parts and assembly line manufacturing — Using machines to create the product instead of a single person to create the product. This helped simplify the process of creation into a simple process which would then expedite work that a single artisan could do on their own. This revolutionized manufacturing and brought about a golden age of new goods and services to the world that we are still feeling today.
If a simple product that was passed from person to person, each adding a single piece, revolutionized the process of manufacturing, allowing the collective to create wonderous works of machine and metal, why wouldn’t that same process be applied to the computer workstations in the manufacturing line? Surely the process can be applied as much with the magic ones and zeroes as much as that physical product we make, right?
There are simple ways that we can begin the process of applying the same principles of replaceable parts to the data that we work with daily. One of the simplest ways is to utilize what is known as “cloud computing” or storing data in “the cloud.” These are pretty common terms that are thrown around, but what is it that they mean when they talk about these terms and how is it that these are able to assist you in streamlining the process like handing things off on an assembly line?
When technology professionals throw around terms like “the cloud,” it is a fancy term that really means “someone else’s computer.” Don’t let that scare you though. Trustworthy companies take special care to make sure that you are the only person who ever gets to look at your data. You can still allow other people of your choosing to view and even edit the data, assuming they have the right software to access it. The process involves sending the file across the Internet to their server farms across the world which are encrypted so that only you can see what you put in there.
Some of the most popular options specifically allow someone to create a document and then pass it along the chain to the next person to add information and data without the hassle of needing to physically pass the file from computer to computer like you would with a flash drive or even like you would pass it along attached to an email. In most cases, you can send them a single link, either by email or whatever instant messaging service you prefer (Teams, Slack, etc.), to save time and energy. Then, when the user is finished, both of you can see the changes made or even with some services you can see the changes made in real time and then the file is again passed along the chain until eventually it is given a final copy which is able to accomplish whatever you need.
This is effectively the same process of replaceable parts that revolutionized the firearms industry before the U.S. Civil War, only instead of musket parts, you are passing along that Excel spreadsheet with last quarter’s expenses or gross income. The effectiveness is hard to ignore as it can help reduce the effort needed to get those important documents filled out. This will increase efficiency and help show off the effectiveness of your company as tasks that previously took days now take hours.
There is another advantage of this process which can’t be understated in a world in turmoil. Especially with natural disasters, there is a risk of data loss within a business. The exposure factor of individual computers can range anywhere along the spectrum, depending on the location of the computer, the type of exposure and all the different threats that exist to a machine. That being said, what would happen if your computer suddenly stopped working? What if a hacktivist group decided they didn’t like your work, so they encrypted or deleted the files that relate to that amazing prototype device you were going to start manufacturing on your machine?
By having items in the cloud, you can mitigate some of the risks of the environment as the version of the file is now stored outside of the computer, down the street and around the block two states over. No matter what Mother Nature throws at your machine or who decides to attack the computers, your data is safe and secure. Or if a flood comes in and turns your computers into a tech soup, bubbling and hissing from the exposed electrical ends still connected to the wall, you can still recover the data stored on it.
This is like having one of the cars made by Henry Ford, the pioneer of the automated assembly line, which is suddenly (and very dramatically) pulled off the assembly line. Since we know where the blueprint is and where the incomplete item went missing, we can easily go back and find the exact point where it needs to be re-inserted into the line.
With all these advantages and productivity boons, what would stop anyone from such an amazing resource?
Back in the day, when servers took up a floor in the university, it was the cost of trying to afford a server that could handle the data ebbs and flows. Now, thanks to manufacturing specialists and an abundance of resources available, servers are becoming cheaper than ever. Now, small and medium businesses can afford to house their data on an internal server just like a big business. This has a lot of the same advantages of cloud storage, allowing you to send a link or path to a file without needing to email the entire file, although instead of being two states over in a server farm it is down the hall.
Still worried about the upkeep and maintenance of a server? Microsoft has started introducing virtual servers. That means that you can leave all the maintenance and hassle of replacement parts to Microsoft while you can focus on manufacturing your cool new device that will change the world for just a simple monthly payment that feels like you are just paying for a couple of monthly streaming subscriptions but with a lot more productive results.
Always remember to contact your IT team if you have questions about how to implement some of these unique technologies and processes in your business. They help handle the data that goes between computers, so it is worth talking to them in order to make sure that things will work the way you want.
Bahar Ferguson is president of Wasatch I.T., a Utah provider of outsourced IT services for small and medium-sized businesses.