Digital transformation: the time is now for manufacturers

Posted on 23 May 2023 by The Manufacturer

A new research project is set to pave the way for smart factories and sustainable manufacture in Scotland and beyond.

Here, Richard Millar, Digital and Metrology Team Lead at the Digital Factory, part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland Group, operated by the University of Strathclyde, discusses why digital transformation is important for manufacturers of all sizes and explains how the project is supporting businesses on their digital journey.

The need for more sustainable manufacturing processes has never been starker. And, for those looking for a competitive edge, target dates will be set much sooner than those confirmed by Governments. At the same time, costs are continuously increasing for manufacturers as they tackle rising energy bills and hiked rates within the supply chain, and we are seeing them struggle to balance net-zero targets with the cost of doing business.

It’s against this backdrop that at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) we are showcasing the vast benefits of digital technologies and connectivity through a new research and development project funded by the UK’s High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult.

Our aim is to help educate businesses of all sizes, from global giants to smaller and more traditional enterprises, on the benefits and key learnings of implementing a digital transformation journey for themselves.

The reality is, for manufacturers to reach net-zero while also addressing rising costs, access to real-time data is essential, but getting there can seem daunting. If they can examine current operations, the costs and associated carbon footprint then they can gather a true representation of impact. From here can they uncover tangible and informed solutions that will bring about big business benefits.

Every day, we are seeing more demand from businesses to unlock digital transformation and transition to a ‘smart factory’, which incorporates an interconnected network of machines to curate and analyse data to learn from. However, despite the vast opportunities this can bring, many still believe that this is out of reach based on their size, operations or financial viability

Some businesses or manufacturing operations may view digital transformation as unattainable for them, but it doesn’t need to be associated with huge costs. Ultimately our own digital transformation at our founding centre, the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) and NMIS Digital Factory is about making digital manufacturing accessible. We are doing the groundwork first so we can demonstrate the possibilities to businesses, supporting them on their own road to embracing digital technology through shared learnings and signposting funding.

Benefits of digital transformation

Digital transformation is key for manufacturers to reach net-zero targets and digital technologies such as connectivity have a vital role to play, both in terms of sustainability targets and overcoming challenges. By embracing digital technologies and harnessing data from operations, businesses can gather a fuller picture of their entire processes and take remedial actions, supporting them as they look to future growth and meeting sustainability initiatives. At NMIS we’re here to help them take the first steps on this journey.

While a digital transformation can support manufacturers with the drive to net-zero, giving them a competitive advantage across industry, there are additional benefits to be reaped from a more informed understanding of the manufacturing process. For example, reduced stages of manufacture and changes to the use of material and improvements within part production can convert into savings in costs, time and energy usage.

At NMIS, we are hoping to draw a realistic picture of current energy performance within the workshops at the AFRC and Digital Factory to create a ‘smart factory’. As a technology agnostic partner with varying equipment, our main aim here is to highlight the changes that are possible for specific businesses, no matter the machinery available.

By collecting data from both legacy plant machinery and fully digital enabled technology, we can achieve a smarter way of working, allowing access to incredible insight that we never had before.  We want to share these learnings with industry and demonstrate how they can achieve this too.

Through digital monitoring, this data can be used to make robust and informed decisions on attaining net-zero targets, while overcoming other operational and manufacturing challenges. In the future this could potentially see us adjusting the building as necessary, introducing new energy systems and assessing the impact they might have on improving energy performance.

As a research centre, we are perfectly placed to share learnings and advise on what has worked and what hasn’t. Thanks to the range of machinery we are integrating, and as it is non-invasive in nature, businesses can home in on the elements most applicable to them in order to progress their own digital transformation journey.

Digital Transformation in action

Led by the NMIS Digital Factory’s Connectivity Theme Lead, Ana Khatuntseva, our digital transformation project will see 73 pieces of machinery within the AFRC and Digital Factory within the new flagship NMIS facility opening later this year, transformed to enable seamless, synchronised, and centralised real-time data acquisition.

For its delivery, we have partnered with engineering technology business, Booth Welsh. Working closely with engineers at NMIS, Booth Welsh is installing power and environmental monitoring sensors on each of the machines, pulling data on live power consumption into one centralised database to enable data integration through digital connectivity. By moving to one shared platform, it will harness data for faster, better-informed decision-making to boost energy efficiency, safety, and quality across manufacturing operations.

The project is also being delivered in collaboration with two of Booth Welsh’s technology partners, XpertRule and Predator Software Ltd.

Many manufacturers view older, legacy machinery as a barrier to digital transformation and believe that a large investment is required to access smart technology.  However, we hope to demonstrate that data can be captured from existing, legacy machinery and equipment, and new environmental monitoring systems, for data processing, dashboarding, analysis, and storage, both locally and pushed to the cloud to enable remote access – all done to scale depending on business size.

To read similar articles, check out our Digital Transformation channel.

About the author

Richard Millar is digital & metrology team lead at National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS). His work is focussed on innovation in manufacturing through the adoption of digital technologies ranging from connectivity, robotics and automation to metrology, visualisation and data Analytics.