Any reasons (or excuses) to not adopt digital tools are rapidly disappearing

Whatever the challenges, if we look back in history, we can see that the introduction of technology repeatedly created an environment that helped to solve the problems of the day. Paul Coates urges managers to grasp the opportunities digitalisation offers today as tomorrow may be too late.

Digital Twins Digital Tools Stock Image
There are digital tools available today that are maturing quickly into vital business assets.

There is nothing new about the challenges that face all businesses, including manufacturers: how to give your customer something quicker, better and cheaper, because if you don’t, then someone else will.

These business facts of life were true for the first Industrial Revolution and are just as relevant today as we enter the fourth. However, there will always be additional challenges.

Today, we are faced by the demands of customisation, the increase in the cost of carbon-based fuels and greater responsibility for the environment, to name but a few.

Whatever the challenges, if we look back in history, we can see that the introduction of technology repeatedly created an environment that helped to solve the problems of the day.

The lessons of history are clear for 21st century business – any reasons (or excuses) to not start adopting digital tools are rapidly disappearing. Now – not tomorrow – is the time to embrace these technologies, and here are eight reasons why.

1. Never stop improving – technology is key

Even a cursory survey of the past shows that failure to innovate and improve by adopting the latest technologies results in businesses becoming more and more compromised and marginalised.

We also know that there will never be enough demand for marginal products and services, which leads to business contraction and ultimately, exit from the marketplace. How many factories exist today that make horse carts?!

However, it’s also important to understand that the big challenge today is not just whether or not to be in the horse cart business, but how you run your factory.

A highly automated cart factory that responds quickly to customer demand, corrects production failures as soon as they happen (or even before) and which continually looks for improvements will outlive a car plant that fails to invest in automation and innovation and treats its customers as a distant irritant who should be grateful for whatever product they receive.

This article first appeared in the June issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

2. Consider all digitalisation options

There are digital tools available today that are maturing quickly into vital business assets. They are often referred to collectively as ‘Industry 4.0’, or the ‘Industrial Internet Of Things’ (IIOT).
Unfortunately, many people are often confused by the branding, do not really understand what the terms represent and as a result do nothing. In fact, I also find these terms confusing and limiting, and much prefer to use the simpler and clearer, ‘adoption of digital tools’.

I recommend manufacturers use this terminology as it helps to expand digital horizons beyond ‘just’ design, manufacturing and supply chain – for example, into ancillary functions such as HR, admin and finance.

All aspects of a business can benefit from adopting digital tools, and networked integration across departments is vital.

Smart Factory Digital Tools - Stock Image

3. Digitalisation enables people to contribute more

Big Data, which I consider a huge part of digitalisation, is telling us more and more about people and their behaviours. Greater understanding of people enables greater unlocking of their potential.

Repetitive workflow tasks drain life from good people, but the wise application of digital tools will help deliver job variety and empowering challenges to employees, and thereby generate the best from an inspired and motivated workforce.

4. Automate routine administrative tasks

Consider a simple workflow for a traditional internal purchase order. It requires printing, manual checking of the supplier details, such as quantity and prices, entry of items by hand and then it’s ‘walked’ to every approver (or it will sit in their in-box).

Next, beg the purchaser to place the order (heaven forbid if you got any of the details wrong; you’ll have to return to the start) and finally, you pester the goods receiving team until your precious package arrives.

A better scenario is that you complete an online form that validates everything in real time. It is routed for approval with an in-built service level so that it cannot be forgotten. Upon approval, the order is automatically placed with the correct supplier who provides you with a web address that allows you to know exactly where the order is until it is on the truck delivering the package.

I know which world I prefer to work in!

5. Technologies that will be truly game changing

Tier 1 manufacturers are pushing ahead by taking advantage of new technologies included in capital equipment purchases as well as enhancements via their own developments or in partnership with groups such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and universities.

If you visit facilities such as the Factory of the Future or Factory 2050 at the AMRC in Sheffield you can witness new technologies and how they interact with each other. For example, you can see a sample use of technology to check how well you are assembling something, in real time – it is very impressive!

These technologies offer a quantum leap in efficiency, quality and speed of delivery. Manufacturers ignore them at their peril.

6. Entry-level digital tools are also game changers

Digital tools can be adopted at modest cost. Recently, I visited a supplier of metrology equipment. They were able to show me how they can monitor the measurement of a component in real time, anywhere in the world.

Taking this single concept, it means that if you are making the same component on different machines in the same facility, or even different facilities, then you can find out if your process is starting to move beyond specified tolerances and correct it before components become rejects.

You could also determine if production standards are worse in one location compared to another. From there it becomes possible to determine how to improve quality and reduce the return rate.

You can make this a reality with something as simple as Wi-Fi-enabled micrometers and Metrology Direct’s software – all for just a few thousand pounds. Digital tools such as these offer more consistent quality, fewer defects, less rework, less scrap and lower return rates.

Add a serial number to every part and immediately you have enhanced traceability as a possible upsell, or retention of business by offering something as standard that your competition does not match.

Smart Factory Automation Robots Digital Tools - Stock Image

Consider a different example. A manager in a company with a few delivery trucks wants to plan pick-ups and drop-offs, and needs to know where any of the vehicles are at any point in time.

Until recently, this kind of offering was only available to large companies with huge IT budgets. Today, there are commercial products that solve this problem for a truly modest cost.

This approach not only helps the manager immediately, but also, as the technology matures, the analytics will enable ever-more accurate quantification of how much fuel is being consumed in one district over another. The manager can then refine costs and enhance the company’s overall offering.

Here’s yet another opportunity – a production manager has multiple old and new programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and wants to improve tracking of work in progress, spot problems ahead of a breakdown, determine when to repair equipment, record the number of operational hours and perform preventative maintenance.

Today, you can purchase a simple controller for less than £200 that connects to many different PLCs (all with different protocols). This enables a manager to consolidate data and populate a database, which in turn provides a real-time dashboard of performance and analytics.

7. Emerging standards accelerate digitalisation

Today, few hardware or software companies are able to provide a truly complete, top-down integrated solution. However, the very good news is that standards are rapidly emerging that will soon allow hardware and software to be increasingly assembled like ‘Lego bricks’.

So, again, the excuses for not adopting digital tools are evaporating – systems really can talk to each other and you need to get those digital ‘conversations’ started.

8. Capital purchases are an opportunity

Considering all the opportunities and capabilities on offer from adopting digital tools, why is it that far fewer than the 62% of customers who believe that their companies could benefit are actuallyreaping the rewards available?

I have spent the past two months trying to answer this question, and I’ve come to this one conclusion: there is a reluctance among UK manufacturers to invest in capital equipment unless one or both of the following exist:

• Equipment is broken and cannot be repaired
• The company has won a contract and this will underwrite the investment.

This reactive mind set is a drag on the uptake of critical technology. Don’t make the mistake of viewing the adoption of digital tools as a necessary evil to keep current customers; rather, see it as the key to new markets and opportunities.

Conclusion

Never in my career have so many new tools been introduced at the same time, and across such a wide range of different manufacturing and supply chain sectors.

These tools can reduce costs, increase flexibility and offer features that previously we could only have dreamt about. This is a great time to be in manufacturing, and provided we adopt digital tools we have a bright future!


Paul Coates has more than 30 years of manufacturing, supply chain and R&D experience. He is the owner of doppioclick and is a self-confessed technology advocate.