Helping SMEs start their digital transformation journey

Posted on 22 Mar 2021 by The Manufacturer

Nikesh Mistry speaks to Jan Hemper, Technical Director at advanced automation system integrator InControl Systems, about the adoption of digitalisation among SMEs.

What reluctance have you experienced from SMEs in starting their digital transformation journey?

Jan Hemper In Control Systems Ltd
Jan Hemper is Technical Director at InControl Systems, a specialist company that has been providing turnkey solutions for process control, automation and information systems for 20 years

Jan Hemper: I don’t necessarily see a reluctance to start but digital transformation means so many different things to different people. I’ve heard of scenarios where the CTO has advised ‘to go digital’, from extracting data from different silos to improving productivity and quality, or reduce rework or waste. But few companies create a plan to understand how to collectively harvest the right data so that it can be used to improve the identified business challenges. Sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge, but often it’s finding the time to evaluate the challenges and create a plan.

How can SMEs resolve this?

Some people are understandably apprehensive, perhaps due to the complexities and lack of understanding of Industry 4.0, AI and AR. One issue is having the practical knowledge as well as information on how the application of ‘digital’ will be useful together with a cohesive method to solve problems towards the final implementation that causes difficulties for SMEs.

How would you advise departmental heads to best work together to a common goal?

What we’ve seen, in the manufacturing space in particular and whether it’s SQDC charts on factory walls or looking at OEE metrics, is that the traditional approach is for people to spend many hours exporting data from different systems, often bringing it into Excel to give some context to huge datasets. It takes a lot of time and you’re always looking at the data that’s too late to change.

Businesses really need real-time data being presented to the people controlling the processes so they can take intervention measures before it costs in terms of time, revenue or materials. Interestingly, different department heads often need similar data from the same processes but interpret it for their own functions. And this is the real benefit of a well-integrated digitalisation road map, with critical data as lead indicators available to all stakeholders.

With a well-planned ‘journey’, for example, shared process and plant data can help the production director with their OEE metrics, the maintenance manager with their PPM, the quality manager with SPC and so on…

Time is one of the challenges SMEs face but are there others?

We’ve seen companies who don’t get any data at all from their machinery through to those who collect every piece of data available and they end up drowning in figures. One of the key points is going back to look at the business issues and to identify which data is going to help solve the business issues.

What would your recommendations be to SMEs who are yet to start their transformation journey?

Whatever you’re trying to achieve, it’s always got to come back to the business case and the ‘pain points’ that are so often missed. There are many different stakeholders within the business, from operations, engineering, finance, quality, maintenance, etc, and running workshops with all the stakeholders together to understand what can be improved is highly desirable.

One of the mistakes we notice is that projects are seen as high profile and are led by the senior team. As a result, they fail to engage the key people doing the work on the floor. It’s often these operators who have the best insight so we suggest getting them involved early in the process so that engagement will result in success.

In short, we’d recommend getting all the stakeholders and shop floor involved up front, enabling accurate insight into the challenges and making the journey much more successful.

What would you say to an SME who comments, “It already works, why would I change it?”

A process may work but it may not be working optimally; again bringing it back to the business objectives is vital. People should try to incrementally implement technology, and we often find the best improvements are the first ones picked.

Do you think there’s a connection between ‘corporate culture’ and the will to get started on the digitalisation journey?

I wouldn’t say that it’s to do with corporate culture necessarily, but with initiatives like this it is imperative that there is a desire to invest in continual improvement of productivity from company owners and a culture of involvement from the shop floor and cooperation across departments.

More information

Nikesh Mistry, Sector Head, Industrial Automation, GAMBICANikesh Mistry is Sector Head, Industrial Automation, at GAMBICA