Small steps key to digital transformation for SMEs

Chris Prince, global engineering director at IMI Precision Engineering explains how focusing on well-defined, incremental steps makes digital transformation achievable in the budgets of many SME manufacturers.

low-volume, very-high-value products - image courtesy of IMI Precision Engineering.
Simple intelligent sensors can provide a view on the performance of components within a connected system that oversees production – image courtesy of IMI Precision Engineering.

Connectivity, big data, cloud computing, and strategic digital transformation are just a few of the buzzwords used in recent years associated with the growth of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Advocates point to a highly digitalised industrial landscape which promises a data-rich interconnected world, one where seamless technology platforms will help improve productivity, promote flexible production capability, create high-value jobs, aid competitiveness and, ultimately, drive growth to support national economic success.

While the undoubted virtues of a connected digitalised industrial future are clear to see, for the vast majority – certainly SMEs, interest lies in the practical and pragmatic advantages digital technologies can deliver.

Instead of being left uncertain by the perceived complexity of a high-level digital transformation strategy, (which for many will be beyond reach when it comes to available resource and investment), I urge machine builders and OEMs – the backbone of the UK’s industrial infrastructure – to focus on taking small, incremental steps when it comes to accessing the tangible opportunities emerging digital technologies can create.

The generation of increased volumes of data lies at the heart of the IIoT offer. But while cloud computing data storing capabilities offer a means to manage such massive data volumes, this doesn’t provide the type of practical solutions SMEs are seeking.

Data-gathering and collection is a small part of the puzzle; turning data points into tangible and actionable information is the challenge. SMEs will benefit far more from localised intelligence, as offered by edge computing, linked to machine performance, health and future capacity, as opposed to purely storing masses of data in the cloud, much of it left unused.

IMI Precision Engineering – The 2017 winners of the prestigious TM Editors’ award for ‘Manufacturing in Action’: (L) Andrew Ball – finance director; (R) Charles Bamford, plant director.
(L) Andrew Ball – finance director & (R) Charles Bamford, plant director – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

IMI Precision Engineering’s flagship UK factory near Lichfield is something of a statement of the modernising vision of the company’s leadership.

At The Manufacturer MX Awards in 2017, this long-established maker of motion and fluid control technologies won the prestigious TM Editors’ award for ‘Manufacturing in Action’.

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Utilising digital technologies such as simple intelligent sensors, which can provide a view on the performance of components within a connected system that oversees manufacturing or production, enables a tactical, practical and value-driven digital adoption approach to be taken by machine builders and SMEs to underpin key operational objectives.

Companies want to improve operational efficiencies, optimise their equipment performance to reduce downtime, have a robust preventative maintenance strategy, lower their cost base, and protect their brand in their eyes of their customers.

Digital technologies can help deliver all these objectives in an easy-to-understand manner and at a local level so that strategic performance intelligence benefits can be obtained.

IMI Precision Engineering is at the forefront of efforts to try to demystify the complex claims of Industry 4.0 and IIOT in the minds of machine builders and SMEs.

Our own insights highlight a disconnect between wanting to benefit from the positive opportunities digitalisation offers, but are often put off by the supposed complexity associated with the deployment of disruptive industrial digital technologies.

Digitalisation Digital Transformation Technology IT - stock image
think clearly about the kind of data and localised performance knowledge that would be of most value to you and your organisation.

My message is start small. Think clearly about the kind of data and localised performance knowledge that would be of most value, and then work with technology vendors to specify the kind of low-risk, but high performing digital solutions that are readily available today.

There is an overt danger of over complication with digital technology adoption which could result in a disconnect between company objectives and reality on the ground.

However, a well-defined focus on the type and level of performance data required to best drive value for an SME will help establish a roadmap for digital technology adoption at the right pace and at the most appropriate level.

Following these principles will help many hard-working UK SMEs currently getting to grips with digital transformation to implement the advantages of IIoT for a brighter future.