Written by Bob Murphy, SVP, Connected Enterprises Consulting at Rockwell Automation.
Digital transformation has the potential to address many of the challenges facing the manufacturing industry today. A study conducted by LNS Research on the current state of industrial transformation revealed that 28 per cent of companies embarking on industrial transformation programmes are actively reaping the benefits. Yet the majority of companies who have the intention of embarking on digital transformation are stuck at the planning, budgeting or pilot stages, or are plagued with slow progress – ultimately, they are not enjoying the benefits that industrial transformation can bring.
All manufacturers have the need to accurately and efficiently connect, manage, validate and optimise their operations, which rationalises the move to becoming digitally enabled. Digital transformation, specifically the convergence of IT and OT, helps manufacturers connect plant equipment and ERP systems, manage materials and equipment, validate order quality and optimise production workflow. This enables a faster time to market, greater operational productivity, asset management and reliability as well as enterprise risk management. What’s more, these gains from digitalisation are not just limited to manufacturing, but apply across the entire supply chain in areas such as network management, supply planning, fulfilment and distribution, as well as customer demand management.
Inefficient use of data is one of the key issues within the manufacturing industry and one of the areas where a digital transformation plan and streamlining of data can make a crucial difference to an organisation. Data resides throughout organisations, however, that data is more often than not lying around in disparate databases, spreadsheets and paper files. This kind of data that is not real-time, not contextualised, and not made available to people where and when they need it, has little to no practical value as its power is not being unlocked. As a result, talented employees have to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort getting things done, instead of relying on more capable processes powered by more reliable and contextualised data. Hence, the issues for most companies are less about data availability and more about data commonality and data interpretation.
Once a common data set and ways to analyse this data are introduced within an organisation, employees can begin to contextualise and make efficient use of the data to benefit the business and its bottom line. Analytics, the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data, is the most integral ingredient for optimising any production process. “Insights” can be leveraged at the device, system and enterprise levels of any manufacturer, regardless of whether the manufacturing is discrete, process or hybrid in nature. Quality control also benefits hugely from the digitalisation journey as today’s manufacturing processes are far more complex than before. This requires the aid of real-time, accurate and contextualised data to aid manufacturers in monitoring the quality of the process and output.
Digital transformation can also assist with addressing one of the most pertinent workforce issues affecting manufacturers today: skills gaps. By 2025, Millennials and Gen Z will make up 75 per cent of the workforce. Being digital natives who have never known a world without the internet and mobile devices, these generations will work very differently from those before them. While they bring fresh ideas to the table, it will take time for them to develop domain expertise in manufacturing. Additionally, many experienced workers are approaching retirement age, taking with them years of critical knowledge and experience built up within their organisation. To offset this skills gap concern, a well-conceived digital transformation plan can supplement workers’ experience with automated analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver significant improvements in MTTR (mean time to repair), operational efficiency and the reduction in manual data collection time.
The value proposition for digital transformation has become very clear, the concepts of smart manufacturing, Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are well-entrenched business vocabulary, and smart connected devices, software and networking technologies for the manufacturing and industrial market are becoming ever more ubiquitous and affordable. So why are so many companies behind the curve when it comes to leveraging these technologies and processes to help their business and their employees?
The apparent complexity of the various technologies available within the ecosystem of IIoT leads many organisations to hesitate in implementing them. However, the reality is that these technologies are tried and tested, and proven to a point where they don’t require pilots and proof-of-concepts. What they require is thoughtfully planned and appropriately phased implementations like any other newly installed technology. With this in mind, how can companies speed up their digitalisation process and shorten the time to reaping the rewards?
At Rockwell Automation, we support our customers in defining and breaking down this transformation process, starting with discovery conversations with senior leadership teams. We attune ourselves to their business imperatives, then move on to a detailed assessment of the company’s current state, which naturally leads to an analysis of gaps that exist within the company’s processes. The gap analysis then informs the roadmap required to close the gaps and achieve the desired future state of performance. After that, it will be all about project execution, with a firm commitment to achieve enterprise-wide transformation.
No matter the approach, the most important factor in the whole digital transformation process is intentionality. As companies push forward to expand and accelerate their digital transformation plans, they will most assuredly begin to unlock the power of leveraging truly contextualized data and the potential that already exists within their company to take advantage of it.