Manufacturing decision-makers must look beyond the myriad challenges of 2020 to deliver an effective and future-proofed business, as experts from Columbus Global explain.
In last year’s industry report that we created in partnership with The Manufacturer and published by Raconteur, (bit.ly/MFG2020NOV) we said that manufacturers can no longer spend time debating whether they should future-proof their operations. We said that it was time to think about the actual ‘doing’.
Where do we stand now, considering all that has happened in the past year? The stance, if we’re honest, is the same – the industry desperately needs to be moving towards innovation.
The extent of digital maturity depends on the business but as a whole, that means replacing manual processes with automation and siloed information with global connectivity. It’s about reducing waste and boosting efficiency.
Beyond that, the success of your business depends on how quickly you can adapt to this brave new world, the one that’s been left in the wake of the pandemic and lockdown of March 2020.
Most manufacturers saw disruption as a result of COVID-19 but there’s a recurring theme among those who coped the best. According to Kevin Bull, Product Strategy Director at Columbus, it was down to their agility.
“The headlines have given us stories about businesses that have adapted their entire operation to switch to the design and manufacture of medical equipment and consumables,” he says. “These changes have been completed in incredibly short timeframes and in environments that would be impossible to socially distance.”
In other words, the more agile your business operations can be, the faster you can adapt to this new world. It’s an unprecedented time, after all.
The current view on digitalisation
Despite the undeniable need for digitalisation, the industry is still digitising on a gradual basis. According to Kevin, this is because innovation is “based on an immediate need or customer demand”.
However, this piecemeal approach isn’t enough if you want to ensure your business thrives during times of uncertainty. You need to examine your entire value chain and look for opportunities where data can be used to drive improvements.
At the simplest level, that might mean data integration – reducing waste by eliminating data entry activities which then frees up your employees’ time to focus on other tasks. At the highest level, it might mean consuming data being streamed from a multitude of sensors and using data analytics and machine learning to make predictions and suggest remedial actions.
This then raises the next question: Why isn’t the entire industry digitalised?
Manufacturers are always striving to be more innovative, whether it’s by developing new products or improving their processes. They know what technological opportunities are available; they just don’t know what’s achievable with those solutions.
You might have heard of technology like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Services and Cognitive Services. But those terms are pretty ambiguous to everyone outside of the IT world. Do you really know the ins and outs of what they mean and how your business can maximise the opportunities?
To tackle this innovation bottleneck, you need to start empowering your employees with knowledge. Martin Clothier, Technical Director at Columbus, believes there’s a lot of untapped innovation within in-house teams.
“Every company has people on the shop floor who know the business, the processes and how to change and improve them. But they’re not IT people or software developers so they end up creating wonderful spreadsheet solutions that plan and run the whole business,” he says.
That leads to the common problem – the knowledge is siloed.
“All this information and knowledge ends up being trapped in a siloed spreadsheet where no-one can understand it and how it was put together,” continues Martin. “To relieve that bottleneck, you can train those people to become citizen developers. They can then take innovative ideas and turn them into reality.”
Embracing Industry 4.0
If the Third Industrial Revolution was all about the introduction of computer processing then the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a transition into realising the full potential of globally connected, intelligent, computerised systems.
It’s about reaching a level of data connectivity where we can leverage the incredible advances in AI and real-world modelling to develop new strategies across the entire business, from product conceptualisation and design right through to end-user consumption and after-sales service provision.