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Editor's Blog

Navigating Up the Digital Transformation Spiral in Manufacturing

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By Elhay Farkash
 
Digital transformation. On the surface, it’s a simple concept — the use of technology to solve traditional business problems.
For manufacturing companies, these problems often include controlling skyrocketing energy costs or increasing plant efficiency.
 
For a rather simple concept, it’s wreaking havoc across the manufacturing landscape. Thousands of vendors and armies of consultants bombard manufacturers with glossy chartware pitching their version of digital transformation. Each is anchored in perceived areas of expertise. They include a neatly package process with clear starting and end points. Buy a specific software or consulting package, wave a magic wand, pray a little, and voila, your manufacturing facility is digitally transformed.
Next time you find yourself in one of these elementary conversations, run. Fast.
 
Digital transformation is not a one-time linear process. It has a starting point, but rather than a strict endpoint, the process should move up in a circular fashion, like a spiral. Once results are generated, they should be incorporated back into the process and used to make additional modifications to achieve great performance improvements.  
 
Real digital transformation more closely resembles an agile DevOps approach to building software, with new capabilities always being incorporated in the design.
 
Manufacturing facilities are complex operations. By manufacturing standards, some of the “newer” plants are over 25 years old. It is also quite common that a plant built for one specific purpose years ago is used today by a different manufacturer building different products.
 
Adding to the complexity, no two manufacturing plants in the world are identical. They are all different shapes, sizes, and in different locations. Heating and cooling systems at a plant in the California desert will react differently compared to a plant in Calgary, Canada. And let’s not forget about personal and cultural variances at one manufacturing plant compared to another.  
All these differences come into play when preparing to digitally transform manufacturing facilities.
 
Whether you’ve already started a digital transformation, are in the middle of one, or just beginning to think about it, here are a few things all manufacturing companies should consider.
 
Before you start, measure everything. Consultants will often recommend starting with a specific project without having a grasp of baseline data. Knowing exactly where and how big all the gaps are should be a requirement. If something isn’t being measured, get the right sensor on it, and establish baseline metrics.
 
Identify the best starting point. Knowing baseline metrics affords the opportunity to start with the right project. Some organizations may prefer to pick an aggressive plan that closes the most significant gap. Others may prefer to start with a smaller pilot project that can generate quick results before moving onto bigger projects. Pick the approach that’s right for you.
 
Create a shopping list. In addition to buying the sensors to establish baseline metrics, identify all the other components needed for your specific digital transformation project. Since every facility is different, they all require different components, sensors, and software. All too often, consultants will bundle this together in standard proposals with premium pricing. Shop around, and only buy what you need.
 
Implement change, measure again and repeat. Digital transformation doesn’t end once a specific project is complete. It’s just getting started. Armed with the original baseline data and results from digital transformation effort, look for when and where additional modifications can be made. Environmental conditions change. Costs of materials vary. Energy prices fluctuate. Product development needs shift. All this change represents an opportunity to tweak the process and improve results.
 
Optimize and automate. As you collect more data, up to every 50 milliseconds from some sensors, optimization engines can be created. Over the long term, this can help identify and address potential issues before they create problems in your manufacturing process.
Consultants and niche vendors recommending a linear one-size-fits-all approach to digital transformation will likely take you down a dead-end road. Look for partners that can help navigate your specific digital transformation project up the spiral, offering flexible models that account for modifications and adjustments along the way yielding additional improvements.
 
Elhay Farkash is CEO of Lightapp, a provider of cloud-based analytics products that make industrial manufacturing plants more efficient.
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