IT has already improved strategic decision-making, business agility and operational efficiency; so, what does the future hold?
That was the core theme discussed at an exclusive roundtable event hosted as part of The Manufacturer Director’s Forum, and sponsored by Sage.
IT sits at the very heart of the way manufacturing is transforming – irrespective of the term you choose to define that transformation (4IR, Industry 4.0, the digitalisation of production…).
Automation and robotics, cloud computing, additive manufacturing and 3D printing, connected factories, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, generative design, data analytics, smart supply chains, you name it, every advance the world has made in terms of how things get made is founded on a backbone of IT.
Yet, until recently, IT has been seen by many business owners and their decision-makers as something of a necessary evil. However, that perspective is fundamentally shifting. Today, IT is seen increasingly as an enabler of business growth, innovation and competitive differentiation.
If that is the view of today, then what of tomorrow?
How exactly will data enable manufacturing organisations to work smarter? Will every employee became of member of the ‘IT team’, therefore making isolated, dedicated IT departments a thing of the past? How will industrial skillsets need to change? Where do IT partners fit into this new ecosystem?
These front-of-mind issues were all explored in a stimulating conversation, co-hosted alongside the team from Sage Business Cloud Enterprise Management, which took place at Marco Pierre White’s 25th floor restaurant in Birmingham, offering an impressive 360-degree view of the city’s skyline at night.
This is the first of two dinners The Manufacturer has co-hosted with Sage.
You can read the key takeaways from the second here – What’s the secret to competitive advantage?
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One delegate, representing a fast-growing precision component manufacturer, explained how his production line used to have lights fitted to the tops of machines. The red, yellow or green light emitted may have represented a relatively basic system, but it was an important initial foray in automated, digitalised condition monitoring.
“Historically, the best way to compete against low-cost manufacturing bases was through superior quality. As their quality has improved, we now have to compete on price, which the right IT system can help lower through efficiency improvements, higher yields, process optimisation, etc.,”
Operations director, one of the UK’s largest upholstery manufacturers
Working in partnership with its machine supplier, the business has now implemented a far deeper, richer level of measuring overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).
“Each machine is networked to one portal which can be remotely accessed by anyone on any device, so long as they hold the required access permission,” he explained.
“It represents the first step on our business’ journey towards smart, connected, digitalised manufacturing, with the information and insights gained feeding directly into our capacity management and work scheduling.”
Construction is one sector where project management and capacity planning is at the very forefront of everybody’s minds.
According to the head of continuous improvement at one of the world’s largest infrastructure groups, “Construction, much more so than in manufacturing, views technology as a powerful accelerator. It gets you where you want to go, but faster.”
Another manufacturer aiming to realise more connected production is an international packaging and consumer goods company. The IT director explained how, in the past, someone physically had to take board off a machine and stack it onto a pallet – a repetitive, low-skilled, low-value add task.
“That process has now been automated and that person has been upskilled to perform quality assessment on our finished product. That’s a much more skilled and value-added role,” he noted.
Furthermore, the business also now automatically collects data at every stage of its production process. The insight this provides has allowed the team to disprove the myth that using a heavier weight of paper automatically equated to stronger, more durable packaging.
“A well-defined strategy with clear stages and outcomes, created by experienced, knowledgeable people is essential; otherwise you risk spending considerable time, capital and resources on something that doesn’t match up to your business requirements,”
Group manufacturing services director, global engineering and scientific technology company
The data revealed that strength relates far more to choosing the right paper stock to start with, how and where it was folded, and where the glue was placed.
Today, the business can offer customers the same if not greater strength of packaging with a lower overall shipping weight, a significant competitive advantage.
“That wouldn’t have been possible without capturing and analysing data,” he explained.
“However, far from being an overnight transformation, it represents one step in much larger journey; but our shop floor is already notably more advanced than previously and our employees have absolutely bought into the changes being made.”
Too much information
It’s one thing to start collecting data at any and all given opportunity, but that can generate huge volumes of information which serves no purpose or value. Rather than collecting every possible piece of data, it’s far better to adopt a more strategic approach. What information does your team require to make smarter, more meaningful decisions, faster?
Every organisation has reoccurring red flags or serial offenders, the machines or processes which frequently create bottlenecks or constantly require extra attention. Use this as your starting point and identify what information would help these processes run more smoothly, one attendee suggested, as the experience and knowledge gained can be a useful stepping stone to broaden out endeavours.
That’s exactly what one of the UK’s leading FMCG manufacturers has done. The key shift for the business, according to its continuous improvement director, was the move from functionality to outcome – i.e. ‘What is it that our customers are trying to achieve?’
“You can’t do everything all at once so you have to decide and define what is right for your business and where you want to start,” he explained.
“Your IT system has risen in importance to become as important as your electricity system – if either goes down, the impact on productivity is both immediate and costly,”
Engineering director, global beauty products manufacturer
“No IT implementation – whether large or small – will look the same as every business is different. That places quite a lot of pressure on software partners to address a business’ requirements in a holistic, tailored approach.
“It’s not about one-off engagements, it’s about forging deep relationships and regular touchpoints.”
No one could argue that the skill requirement within manufacturing is changing, and changing quickly. Walk into any factory and you’re far more likely to see employees holding control units or smart devices, rather than spanners; and there is a growing emphasis on digital skills, particularly those associated with analysing and interrogating data.
But is this shift causing traditional mechanical engineers to suffer an ‘identity crisis’, of sorts? And if so, is a similar crisis taking place on the IT side as both try to determine how their roles fit in the digital age?
“The ideal profile of the engineer or technician of the future will encompass strong aspects of both information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT),” said the engineering director at a global beauty products manufacturer. “Indeed, the line between IT and OT is already becoming blurred.”
“In the future, the IT department’s primary responsibility will be to drive consistency and to help ‘industrialise innovation,” he added. “IT systems will need to enable businesses to become more proactive and far less responsive, building towards eventually being able to suggest predictive measures.
“How IT teams handle that transition can either be liberating for them and the business, or challenging as they resist the changes taking place.”