“Manufacturers are from Mars; Digital Vendors are from Venus” bridging the gap to a happy marriage

Posted on 31 Mar 2022 by The Manufacturer

Watching two people struggling to find a common language can be a painful thing, throw Industry 4.0 into the mix and it can be excruciating.

This article, therefore, has one clear purpose: to help Manufacturers and Digital Manufacturing (Industry 4.0) solution vendors to work together, better. Better for them, better for all of us who yearn for the UK to rise, once more, up the global manufacturing tables.

I’ll make 3 points in the next couple of pages, using 3 real case studies:

Point 1 – for manufacturers – be clear on what you want/need before talking to potential vendors

Point 2 – for vendors – know how to conduct a great 1st meeting, first impressions count after all

Point 3 – for both parties – here are 6 ways to improve the way you work together

First, a little background. As an unintended consequence of my lean work, I’ve spent the last couple of years advising clients about where Digital Manufacturing might add value. Might is the word to ponder in the previous sentence.

For example, I’ll encourage a client to run a low-risk Proof-of-Concept (PoC) to test a simple experiment like “will Augmented Reality (AR) help us to standardise maintenance skills on our tricky A type machines to reduce lost time”. This is a pretty different framing to a vaguer, dare I say, lazier “let’s see if AR works in maintenance.”

By accident I’ve found myself acting as a matchmaker between Digital Manufacturing vendors and Manufacturing clients. This journey has taken me to Germany, Japan, the US & around the UK, bridging the gap in understanding between these two parties. I’ve wrestled with both parties in the fields of AR/VR, Big Data, AI, Eye Movement Tracking, 360 degree shop-floor mapping & low-code.

In all honesty, as far as the tech goes, I’m an enthusiastic amateur and my thoughts are still forming on where exactly Digital Manufacturing will deliver value in manufacturing. Currently, I mostly describe the digital solutions market as being a little like the Cosmo restaurant chain. Cosmo is a buffet-of-the-world chain where you can graze on a multitude of cuisines from around the world, in one sitting. This grazing sounds interesting but makes it tough to fully appreciate a single cuisine and can lead to digestive issues. Let’s press on with the first of my 3 points.

Point 1 – for manufacturers – be clear on what you want/need before talking to potential vendors.

The image below shows a useful approach to thinking about Digital Manufacturing solutions. Useful in that it starts with need. Let me explain the thinking.

A lot of manufacturing is to do with skilled people working with good equipment, nothing controversial (or ground-breaking!) so far. I find it helpful to consider any Digital Manufacturing investment in the context of an equation. We’ve got Equipment on the top, as the numerator and People on the bottom, as the denominator.

Simply speaking we want to improve the way the equipment works – increased uptime, quality and productivity. Any Digital Manufacturing investment targeted at the Equipment should, in this model, either (1) predict problems earlier or (2) alert us to early symptoms of things going wrong.

Equally, we want to improve the work done by people in the business to get maximum value from their skills. So, any Digital Manufacturing investment here should (3) eliminate/reduce wasteful work or (4) reduce variation in Standardised Work.

Finally, both of them can help to (5) visualise issues earlier or (6) identify the next best improvement idea for us. Our aim is to improve both numerator and denominator to give us a double whammy benefit as a result.

This is just one model and you’ll have your own view. The true power lies in just having a model to guide your thinking way. Any interaction, with a potential Digital Manufacturing vendor, can then start with “How can what you’re offering help me to improve one of these 6 things?” rather than “that’s a shiny bauble, how does it work?”. In short, it keeps everybody honest and grounded.

Point 2 – for vendors – know how to conduct a great 1st meeting, first impressions count after all

I’ll illuminate this through three case studies, from the 1st meeting, where the vendor/solutions provider first sets foot inside the manufacturing business.

CASE 1 involves an Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality (AR/VR) vendor who came into the manufacturer and followed the classic…

“I’ll do a bit of pre-work  à do a show-and-tell of our particular solution in a conference room with a coffee à then we’ll do a walk-and-talk, then à I’ll try to make what I see fit to our particular solution”

…as shown below:

In this case some pre-work was done but the vendor intention appeared to be to come in for solely a rapport building chat. The pre-visit phone conversation was the failure point though as it lacked an exploration of specific issues. The show-and-tell (in the meeting room) was a very cursory conversation in the style of “tell us what your problems are broadly?” and it quickly moved into a sales mode of “look at what we can do”

Once that part was completed, we then moved onto a walk-and-talk, at my insistence. This wasn’t something that the AR/VR company technical salesperson was particularly comfortable with. There was a hesitant “yeah, yeah we can do that” but it was obvious, throughout the walk, that they were ill at ease and not used to being on the shop floor. The salesperson was on the back foot, hunting and scrambling to try to make an impact. At the end, a quick wrap up followed with a clumsy attempt to make AR/VR fit. By that point they’d lost the room because the walk-and-talk hadn’t shown sufficient understanding or empathy for the process or problems.

The failure of this approach was, in my opinion, largely because whole structure of events was flawed. It’s not sensible. Below is my preferred 1st meeting structure that I now request potential vendors to use. Strong pre-work still needs to be done with, after a quick meet and greet, a walk almost as soon as they arrive on site.  This frames and grounds the whole discussion in reality.

As we walk the vendor should be trying to understand more about the process and product at a broad level and ask to visit the point of need. Why did you want us here today? Which of your processes/products are troubling you? are the right kind of questions.

At this point, the brave part is upon us – where the vendor has to be prepared to stand on the shop floor, in a safe place, observing for 5 minutes or so, asking specific questions on proceedings to truly understand what the problem is. Then we head back into the conference room for the show-and-tell in relation to what you’ve seen and discussed on the gemba.

CASE 2 concerns an Artificial Intelligence (AI) business that had developed innovative software to help manufacturers with complex BoMs and Routings to schedule their shopfloor better.  This vendor followed my preferred structure, did their pre-work well, asking the right kind of questions on the phone. The walk-and-talk was where they lost the thread, asking general questions to try to show interest, rather than trying to get to the nub of what the problems are. They didn’t ask to stand and observe and, whilst on the shop, critically, they didn’t grasp the complexity of that particular shop floor.

This was a moulding business that had 50 machines and 400+ tools. When they came back into the conference room to talk afterwards, during the show-and-tell, the whole thing unravelled because they hadn’t grasped that the tooling profile was a complex mix (single and multiple impression tools, 1 + 1’s, sometimes inserts) Essentially there was a whole layer of tooling complexity they’d missed.

Why did this matter? Because my manufacturing client, sat next to me, couldn’t get past the fact that the potential vendor hadn’t understood how the process and product worked. The presentation was halted and the fledgling courtship ended there. It’s very tricky, if you’re trying to sell a solution across multiple industries, if you don’t have a grasp of different types of processes, products and sectors. You’re going to miss things and appear to lack knowledge. Interestingly, that AI business has now chosen to focus on one very narrow sector where they can deeply understand the process, problems and pain. They progressed rapidly up their learning curve thereafter, soon adept at communicating in the specific language of that group of manufacturers.

CASE 3 is a positive case of an Eye Tracking business who did the pre-work very well, asking good qualifying questions. They conducted a strong walk-and-talk, then stood and observed the problem areas.  If you’ve ever seen a politician on a factory shopfloor in a hi-vis, you’ll recognise what comfortable and comfortable looks like. These people had clearly spent time in factories. The show-and-tell, back in the meeting room, was cleverly designed so that they could quickly adapt it to something they’d seen on the shop floor.

Summarising the image below; I don’t like the left but I like the right because I’ve seen it work for the benefit of both sides.

Point 3 – for both parties – here are 6 ways to improve the way you work together

Reflecting on the points above, my skill for good or ill, is a clarity of purpose and a diagnostic ability. What follows below are 6 points of reflection; 3 things Digital Manufacturing vendors need to get better at, complimented by another 3 for manufacturers.

For digital manufacturing vendors

  1. Stop taking the “Whaddyawant? yep, we can do that” approach. The best use of your expertise is to act like a doctor rather than a pharmacist.
  2. However wedded you are to the beauty of your product, fall in love with their problems not your solution. “Look at our baubles, aren’t they shiny” is no good to manufacturers.
  3. A generalised understanding of manufacturing leads to vanilla solutions – like a doctor prescribing aspirin for everything. There are repeating patterns to be sure but every factory is different.

A solution to these? Don’t just answer the email and agree to go on site without qualifying that the manufacturer has something tangible to show-and-tell about pain and/or gain. Once in, understand the product & process beyond a cursory glance.

For manufacturers

  1. The other half of point 1. above. Be clear about the specific SQDCP / capability gap you’re looking to address & be prepared to walk-and-talk it on the shopfloor.
  2. Raise your expectations of vendors & act like an engaged but assertive Customer. It’s not their fault (vendors) it’s ours (manufacturing sector). If we don’t ‘pull’ the right approach, they’ll naturally ‘push’ whatever their understanding is. It’s our responsibility as a manufacturing sector to set expectations and educate Digital Manufacturing vendors on how to engage with us usefully.
  3. Open the kimono to the vendor. Sure, you’ve got IP to protect but if you’re too precious about showing them the issues they’ll have to guess. Many vendors are good but they’re rarely blessed with psychic ability.

A solution to these? Have a specific reason why you want to try a certain digital solution before making external contact. When the vendor comes on site, take them directly to the shopfloor straight after shaking hands (before any demo of shiny baubles). At the very worst the subsequent demonstration in the conference room will be better informed.

As with so much in Lean manufacturing, the magic happens at “show me” not “tell me”. If you develop a strong diagnostic ability to guide useful discussion on the shopfloor, you won’t go far wrong.

About the author

Russell is the Co-founder of Sempai and has spent 15 years helping Manufacturing companies large and small, strong and not so strong, who are serious about improving the performance of their business. Russell has held Operations, Materials and Lean positions within the Automotive, Aerospace and Construction Equipment sectors.

Lean transformation work has taken him to shopfloors and boardrooms on 4 continents, upskilling 1000+ people to drive forward 100+ businesses, across 6 industry sectors – in the UK, Europe, the US, China, India, Japan and South America. He has designed and run multi-site lean programmes and, among other clients, consulted for 10 years to a Toyota Group company, created the JCB Production System and established Lean Academies for two £bn global manufacturing businesses.

He is also leading a digital startup around lean skills, whilst helping manufacturers with his keen eye for identifying and supporting Industry 4.0 opportunities. He is also an Author, Industry Expert, Conference Speaker & Awards judge. Russell loves factories, they are the ambient soundtrack to his life. Training and coaching a thousand+ people creates a lot of stories to share.