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Digital Transformation

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What’s Next for Smart Manufacturing?

By Naveen Poonian

In 2018, manufacturers are looking ahead at ways to focus on digital transformation. Manufacturers across many industries have begun to leverage an array of digital technologies from the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud computing, big data and analytics, robotics, and mobility. These tools enable manufacturers to compete with more speed, efficiency, and sustainability in markets that demand rapid and ongoing innovation. In complex discrete manufacturing sectors, digital transformation is increasingly critical to managing complicated supply chains, controlling costs, and staying competitive.

In 2018, manufacturers need to lay the groundwork for manufacturing operations success by investing in the technologies driving digital transformation and embracing the emerging changes in their industries.

Increasing business agility comes from operational excellence
Operational excellence will be one of the major stepping-stones to successful digital transformation in 2018. Everything from design to shop floor operations to quality management to business processes will see step changes in efficiency, accuracy, and agility from the true digital integration of the manufacturing enterprise.

In global manufacturing companies, change feels impossible. Many are still using paper systems and longstanding processes. Smoothly functioning processes are hard-won, and everyone from technicians to executives is wary of “fixing” what isn’t broken. But in the last few years, the convergence of powerful technologies (IoT, big data analytics, additive manufacturing, 3D models, artificial intelligence, and much more) has compelled manufacturing companies to recognize the profound opportunity to improve operations. Many enterprises thought ERP and PLM were the answer. But all too often the shop floor—where all the variability is, where all work is being done—was practically being ignored.

Consistency improves the bottom line — streamline the shop floor and align it to business outcomes and strategies via integration. Make the best use of your equipment, time and people. Increase margins, increase revenue, increase profits. This has always been the mantra, but at this point in time, especially given the scale and complexity of global supply-chain driven manufacturing, manufacturing intelligence technology platforms are the most effective way to reach new heights.

When your customers are government bodies, airlines, and hospital systems, the demands are life-or-death serious. Regulatory compliance, cost audits, and quality assurance are expensive and time-consuming obligations. Records must be kept for up to 40 years. Tier 1 companies are essentially complex assembly plants, with specialist supplies providing all major components. These enterprises have entire organizations dedicated to managing supplier quality. Physical monitoring incurs travel costs, not to mention salaries for sizable inspection teams.

With a manufacturing intelligence platform, you can compel suppliers to perform regular quality measurements during their process, then inspect upon receipt to verify again. When needed, supplier auditing can be stepped up via the system; no need to send an inspector overseas. This digital approach pushes quality at the source and catches defects early. Digital record keeping requires less physical space and management, and records are more accessible and better protected.

Operational excellence will be one of the major stepping-stones to successful digital transformation in 2018. Everything from design to shop floor operations to quality management to business processes will see step changes in efficiency, accuracy, and agility from the true digital integration of the manufacturing enterprise.

This is easier said than done, for certain. There’s a lot of buzz about digital transformation, but if you listen closely, much of what’s being said comes in the form of a question. What does it entail? How and where do we start? Can we afford it? Will it work? How long will it take?

Focus on better integration methods
Many manufacturers are focused on using ERP to manage costs across the company and supply chain. But there’s a lot happening on the shop floor that doesn’t bubble up into the ERP. If changes are being made, who knows about it? What do the associated processes cost? How will it impact delivery timelines? Does it require more labor, more expensive parts? Small changes can add up over the duration of a long, complex project. Incomplete, outdated data leads to limited visibility, which can lead to waste. That’s why integration must include shop floor systems and processes in order to ensure operational excellence.

Each company will have different integration challenges. To identify the most beneficial investments and implementations, it’s important to focus on cross-functional opportunities. Where are data streams and critical processes getting stuck behind walls? Which processes and inspections could be automated? How can sensor readings and metrics from shop floor equipment be incorporated into quality checks or used to predict errors and maintenance needs before any damage or waste is incurred?

Finally, it’s important to look at how access to operations and performance metrics (and the insights they enable) is being optimized. If you are turning the shop floor into a digital manufacturing hub, you need to provide different ways of interacting with the platform — customized by role, skill, access privilege, and information needs. It won’t work as well if every user has to contend with the complexity of the entire system.

A look ahead in 2018
In the year ahead, change leaders should focus on operational excellence as a means to boosting business agility. Digital transformation is a collection of outsize yet intricate challenges; those willing to collaborate with partners, universities and smart manufacturing test beds will have a head start. CIOs have to push for a more central role by aligning their agenda with strategic business outcomes and clearing a path for their technologists to lead the way. Enterprises that operate at the highest levels of science and engineering already have what it takes to rise to the occasion; it will be thrilling to see what they do to advance smart manufacturing in the year ahead.

It’s often declared, but harder to delineate: the ability to carry out digital transformation and integration depends heavily on the vision of leadership and the readiness of the enterprise culture to embrace experimentation and change. The need to move quickly — which will surely be felt with some urgency in the year ahead — requires an understanding of acceptable risk and a united front in the C-suite. The role of the CIO has to become more central, and their team has to be empowered to lead toward strategic business outcomes. Experiments and pilot projects that result in tangible operational improvements will help secure the all-important buy-in.

Everyone from the top down will have to flex unfamiliar muscles and develop new skills. Prioritizing recruitment around data analytics, integration work, and change management will ensure that the enterprise can fully harness the power of their integrated, intelligent platforms.

There’s enough challenge for a lifetime, but companies with the ingenuity and talent to build fighter jets, spacecraft, and naval frigates have what it takes. The key is to begin now — follow a strategic vision, take calculated risks, and make optimal use of time, talent, and resources. Operational excellence has always been the engine of manufacturing growth. Digital transformation will make the engine faster, sleeker, and stronger.

Naveen Poonian is the Chief Operating Officer at iBASEt, which provides manufacturing software solutions to complex, highly regulated industries. Visit www.ibaset.com for more information.

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