Four Areas to Adopt Digital Technologies

by | Feb 23, 2024 | Blog, Industry Article

Written by: Paul Hogendoorn, MEE Cluster Digital Transformation Specialist

There are many conversations today about “digital transformation” and adopting digital technologies in your manufacturing operation. There’s also a lot of confusion, uncertainty, hesitancy, and even angst and sometimes conflict. Many manufacturers get stuck before they even get going.

To get past some of the things that impede a company’s digital adoption efforts, it is important to look at the four different areas where digital can be adopted, and four different parts of a manufacturing company that digital technology is or should be connect to. These are:

  1. Machines.
  2. People.
  3. Business systems.
  4. Products, and product designs.

Connecting machines is easily accomplished, whether new network connectable machines or even older legacy machines. The goal of connecting and monitoring machines is usually to determine and improve OEE by monitoring uptime and down time and keeping track of machine conditions.

Connecting workers is becoming increasingly important as the tribal knowledge of a retiring workforce needs to be replaced by a systematic way of helping workers do their jobs right. Technologies that train, guide, and develop the workforce are effective tools that companies now leverage to help deal with labour and skill shortages.

Business systems have historically run independent of the actual manufacturing process or have been connected to the daily manufacturing process manually, often after the fact. Many plant floor level management tools have been developed over time by production management people while the accounting software was developed for finance and administration purposes. Manufacturers today are looking to connect and integrate plant floor production systems with administrative and financial systems.

Engineering departments have been using digital tools for design for decades but are now using advanced technologies for product validation, quality assurance, “buy-off”, predictive and prescriptive analytics and product lifecycle management.

And this is where some of the challenge and conflict comes in: the four different areas have four different internal drivers and four different internal champions or customers. The goal of machine connectivity is to determine the efficiency of the manufacturing equipment, improve uptime and reduce downtime. The focus is maximizing the return on investment of these expensive investments.

The focus of connected worker technology is to make sure the right products are being worked on at the right time and done the right way. Its focus is on improving the outcomes of the daily activity of the worker.

Connecting business systems seeks to streamline the administration and financial reporting functions of the business, as well as dynamically optimizing the production plan to make the best use of resources (machine and skills availability, and capital) while meeting the customer’s schedule.

Engineering software has likely been in use for decades for design, but new technologies facilitate product validation, the creation of “as-builts”, provide predictive and prescriptive analytics, and expand the data collection scope to include the product’s entire projected life cycle.

Four different drivers for four different applications of digital technology in a manufacturing company, likely with four different champions. Its easy to imagine how things can go wrong, how projects can get stuck (even stuck at the starting point), and how adopting digital technology in one area of the business has the potential to adversely affect the operations in another area of the business. Here are some tips on how to get started, and how to avoid costly (time and money) mistakes.

  1. Alignment. Every technology adoption project should align with the company’s stated objectives. It should include and engage the company’s people and it should be built on proven effective manufacturing or administrative practices.
  2. Priority. Consideration should be given to what can be done quickly, what will take more time and cost more money, what can wait, and what can be done through iteration.
  3. Business flow. The result of the application of technology is, it should make things “easier, faster, better”. If it is a step backwards in even one of these areas, (it isn’t faster, or easier, or better), that should be a red flag.
  4. Always think Lean. “Whatever does not add value to your customer is waster”. Does the investment add value to your customer? The more directly (and immediately) the technology adds value to your customer, the quicker the return on the investment.   

The application of new technology is not the right way to fix bad processes – it often compounds the problem and makes it harder to solve. Look for a process that already works and apply digital technology to it.

Start with a small project and get the people who will be working with it daily involved. Its easier to get buy-in on the digital transformation process with a couple small wins under your belt and a growing group of people enthusiastic about the early outcomes.

Remember that time is money. The focus needs to be on more than just uptime and downtime, it needs to be on reducing wasted time and waiting time as well. Ultimately, the application of any new technology in any of the four areas needs to be about shortening the cash conversion time – which is the time between receiving an order from a customer and delivering the product and getting paid for it.  

Technology is only a tool and is not a substitute for good people, good business practices, good manufacturing processes, or good customers. But it is a great tool that is available and ready to be applied beneficially in all four areas of your business. Delivering higher quality products, in shorter time, drives top line and bottom-line growth. Optimizing schedules around equipment and human resources increases an operation’s production capacity. Connected worker technology is one of the best ways to address the current labour issues, replacing tribal knowledge with a systematic and scalable approach that is more conducive to attracting, training, and retaining, the next generation work force.

Doing “digital transformation” right comes down to understanding what to apply where, when, and most importantly why. After that, the how part is easy.