Small steps lead to giant leaps for digital manufacturing

Manufacturers and their customers are still cautious about investing in digital. Steven Barr and Ravi Gidoomal of Edge Digital Manufacturing share insights and inspirations drawn from recent one-to-one and small group discussions with over 100 manufacturing leaders.

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For industry as a whole, digitalisation makes business sense; but at a business level the evidence of results is sparse.

Among the questions we hear most often from businesses are, “Where do we start with digital manufacturing?” and, “How can I justify the investment without first-hand experience?”.

Our discussions always seem to start with the pains manufacturers would like to go away, and the gains they would like to make. But they very quickly turn to experiences people are proud of.

Adding these together, we might say that some small but strategic digital steps for humans add up to giant leaps for manufacturing. Here’s what we’re hearing.

Listen for the starting signal

Customer requirements and internal commercial pressures create the demand-pull for improvements in the business. So, listening to the voices of the customer and of the workers who make things happen is a good place to start.

Seek feedback from customers and end-users of your products and your after-sales services. How do they view what you are doing for them? What are their other suppliers doing better? What technologies are they using? What technologies have they seen their competitors taking advantage of? What’s the risk to you if you don’t change your ways?

Similarly, engage with your people right from the beginning of your digital journey. Actual ways of working are more telling than specifications and formal procedures. What are the workarounds that make the pool of ERP data useful? How could those informal processes be turned into best practice across the business?

The only way to find out is to ask. Make it easy for ingenious people to speak up and share their ideas. Let them take informed risks in innovation, and have fun doing it.

This article first appeared in the April issue of The Manufacturer magazine. 

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Richard Larder, head of digital innovation at Dyer Engineering explained their approach: “We are moving towards open book management and gamification of shop floor data collection, as we see the huge untapped potential of all our employees, and are invested in sharing company performance data, normally reserved for the senior management team, with all levels of the organisation.”

Take one step at a time

A digital journey is a long-term prospect, a continuous improvement process of business transformation to specify, select and implement the right technologies at the right time. The stages of the journey should be set out in steps, each with objectives and provision built in for learning and re-planning next steps.

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Collaboration is such a common feature of successful digital manufacturing that we might overlook how important it is.

Precision manufacturer Contracts Engineering started their digital journey in 2014.

Managing director Troy Barratt highlighted their step-by-step methodology: “We have focused on making incremental productivity improvements on a weekly and monthly basis.

“This has gotten everyone on board with the changes and been much easier to manage than trying to do large, wholesale changes all at once.

“We upgraded our ERP system in 2016, and every month or two we would move another manual (think Excel) report into the ERP so it is real-time and auto-generated. We now hardly touch Excel and have real-time information across our production planning!”

Step forward together

Collaboration is such a common feature of successful digital manufacturing that we might overlook how important it is. Local pilots might point the way, but without joined-up thinking and transfer of know-how, initiatives will quickly peter out. Recognise that you need to engage your best (and busiest) people in making their ideas work across the business – and not just in their specialist corners.

One larger manufacturer is using a closed online platform to socialise ideas and experiences and to encourage mutual support. Another approach is to make collaboration the only acceptable way of working.

David Millar, the managing director of Heap and Partners, is an advocate of collaborative working: “It’s very easy for barriers to build up between departments, so bringing in people from different departments to enable them to work together not only gives a fresh perspective but also helps people understand each other’s issues.

“If nothing else it helps lift morale as people usually enjoy spending time away from their normal role!”

Pace yourself for a long walk

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The step-change benefits from digital manufacturing of a business and its external relationships take time to build up.

We often hear that for the industry as a whole, digitalisation makes business sense, but at a business level the evidence of results is sparse.

The step-change benefits from digital manufacturing of a business and its external relationships take time to build up. Commercial companies don’t want to give away their secrets, but could share the lessons learned.

EDGE Digital Manufacturing is working with industry partners to compile and communicate data-rich case studies of experiences implementing digital technologies – and we would love to hear your stories. How will you justify your investment in digital? Where will you start? How will you keep on keeping on your journey to digitally enabled productivity and competitiveness?

Beware the distraction of short-term cost savings, relatively easily achieved without a fundamental change in ways of working on the shop floor or in business-to-customer interaction. Listen to your customers and your people, and assemble a committed, collaborative team to drive digital transformation for the long term.

And keep sharing the good news of your giant leaps along your digital journey.

EDGE Digital Manufacturing is the advisory services partner of The Manufacturer and an accredited solution provider of the Digital Readiness Level Tool. We can help you make sense of the digital landscape and find the right way forward for your business.

Why not take the free Digital Readiness Level Tool benchmark assessment and book a complimentary 1-2-1 call at [email protected] to discuss the findings with us?

Follow us on LinkedIn to learn more about how we are helping suppliers, makers and their customers to make their digital breakthrough.

Dr Steven Barr is a chartered engineer and expert at turning manufacturing business strategy into tangible results. He is managing director of the not-for-profit community interest company DRL-Tool.org

Ravi Gidoomal is an experienced banker and management consultant who is focused on implementing growth strategies.