How SMEs can get to grips with digital transformation

Posted on 19 Oct 2022 by Joe Bush

As an SME it is always important to recognise where your data is coming from. And, as companies grow, there is an exponential growth of data from various sources.

As part of their keynote at the upcoming SME Growth Summit, taking place as part of Digital Manufacturing Week, Rimsha Tariq, Continuous Improvement & Digital Transformation Technician, and Peter Lai, Continuous Improvement & 4IR Manager, NGF Europe (NGFE), will discuss digital transformation in manufacturing from the point of view of SMEs and the importance of cloud technology, IoT and Big Data. We caught up with them for a sneak preview.

Can you give a flavour of your talk at this year’s SGS?

PL: The premise will be on how NGF Europe, which is part of the NSG Pilkington Group, has gone from having zero smart digital technology infrastructure to having real-time dashboarding that has ultimately helped us improve production, operational efficiency and reduce energy consumption and waste.

RT: We’ll also go into how an SME with a small team and limited resources, can still really home in on becoming a smarter factory.

NGF Europe has gone from having zero smart digital technology infrastructure to having real-time dashboarding that has ultimately helped us improve production, operational efficiency and reduce energy consumption and waste

Can you explain the difference between the cloud, IoT and Big Data and how they work together in a manufacturing context?

RT: Cloud computing refers to the access of data or information located in a virtual space, as opposed to the use of local servers or computers. IoT is hardware that’s been made smart. There are five key components that make an IoT device:

  • Sensors: The parameters that are being measured such as temperature and humidity
  • Connectivity: The network – whether that’s WiFi, Ethernet, 4G etc
  • Data: What is actually being collected and the main purpose of the device
  • Information: Translation of the data so that it makes sense for the user and is purposeful
  • Operating the application: Controlling of the IoT and the reading of the information that’s received

Big data then refers to larger more complex datasets; the concept that allows access to databases in real-time. Put simply, IoT is the source of the data. Big Data is the analytic platform of the data, and cloud computing is the location for storage, scale and speed of access.

There’s money to be saved in not having to buy physical servers and becoming more efficient purely by looking at the data you already have. And again, it really helps bring a focus on sustainability via waste reduction. The relationship between cloud computing, IoT and Big Data creates a unique opportunity for businesses to become proactive by working smarter, not harder.

What challenges can SMEs face around data that are perhaps not so prevalent in larger organisations?

PL: A lack of workable infrastructure. At NGFE, we had bits and pieces of data coming from a variety of different sources, whether that was an SQL server within our corporate network, Excel data, or more importantly, industrial networks that included PLC data, etc.

How you go about linking that all together is a big problem. Usually, businesses are looking for short-term solutions, and how a problem is going to get fixed now. When we were setting up a factory many years ago with SCADA, we had SCADA, SAP and QA systems, all in different places, which made everything much more difficult from an infrastructure perspective. Therefore, it’s key to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and end goal. Then, work backwards from there. Set your KPIs and then see how you’re going to go about achieving them.

Can the sheer volume of data cause potential problems – particularly for SMEs?

PL: It’s all too easy for too much data to be collected. First and foremost, there’s no value in collecting data which you’re not going to use. Crucially, what’s changed is that the cost of data is much cheaper, so it’s easier for data to be stored, and this is being driven by cloud computing.

For example, we are currently in proof-of-concept for a service, which is available in AWS cloud, which is using AI and ML to analyse huge amounts of data, looking for statistically significant changes.

So, it’s easy to get bogged down with the sheer volume of data that’s available, and it’s too much for someone to look at physically. But when you’ve got a service doing the same thing, then that task is one that manufacturers can let go. So, the solution is using intelligent services to look at huge amounts of data and pinpoint when there is statistically significant differences.

What’s NGFE’s data story and what advice would you give to other SMEs about to embark down the same road?

RT: For us, it was about understanding what was relevant to the business; cutting down the noise and focusing on what really matters. Not everything can be fixed with a sensor, and not all data is useful. Building dashboards and putting the architecture in place takes time; hence why we take our proof-of-concept approach where we can carry out experiments on a small scale, and play around and test as much as we can.

If it gives us something tangible, only then will we implement it on a larger scale. As an example, we’ve got digital projects in place for the next couple of years that we want to roll out across different areas of the business. We put CAPEX in place for only small projects.

Whether something is going to give tangible results is an important point for SMEs to remember. That was a hurdle for us to start with because we were just excited about having sensors across our site. So, it was important for us to focus on what is of real value.

PL: There’s lots of different technologies out there but what’s important is whether it actually adds to the business. There’s a lot of hype surrounding digitalisation, Industry 4.0 and IoT, but what is it that’s going to deliver value? Once that can be seen to be having an impact, then a business can start to map what else might be required.

What does the digital future look like; for SMEs in general and NGFE in particular?

PL: The future for SMEs is about how they can become proactive, rather than reactive as a production site; making stepped improvements through the use of technology. And the technology is now cheap enough to allow access to even some of the smallest companies.

RT: IoT, cloud and Big Data is a key part of digital transformation, and SMEs need to make it part of their journey too. They shouldn’t be scared of larger companies with big budgets. Something else that we’ll cover at the SME Growth Summit is that we have a very small budget, and an extremely small team. So, although it’s a journey that can be daunting to start with, it’s not as scary once you have taken the first step.

Tickets for SME Growth Summit on 16-17 November at Exhibition Centre Liverpool are still available. Why not join us for two days of engaging with your peers to build stronger manufacturing businesses, with three key streams: People, Platform and Processes.


*Tickets are for manufacturers only.


Rimsha TariqRimsha Tariq joined NGF Europe two years ago, and as the company’s first Continuous Improvement & Digital Transformation Technician, she has played a vital role in their journey to becoming a smarter digital factory. As well as being a certified Cloud Practitioner, she has a background in mathematics, finance, and management. Utilising her vast array of skills, Rimsha architects data and cloud solutions to make production more efficient. She believes that cloud, IoT and Big Data are the future of manufacturing.

Peter LaiPeter Lai started working at NGF Europe over 27 years ago and has held numerous roles over that time ranging from operator to production manager. These perspectives have given him the key insights into the data NGF needs to utilise as a business. As the Continuous Improvement & 4IR Manager, he combines practices from his lean six sigma certification and Level 7 Executive Business Management training to drive the production forward. He believes that digitalisation is key.

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