How to get the most value from digital technology in manufacturing

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Every industry right now finds itself in the midst of major Industry 4.0 transformations. This process is leaving decision-makers wondering how to get the most value from their new digital technology, both before and after bringing it aboard.

Digital technology in manufacturing is a game changer. From big-data analytics, machine learning (ML), and artificial intelligence (AI) to automation and data-sharing platforms, tech is here to stay. Nobody is under any illusions anymore about the importance or fragility of the world’s supply chains. Industry 4.0 can help manufacturers remain stable and efficient in a world with frequent productivity setbacks. Here’s how to get the most value from digital technology in manufacturing.

Extracting Maximum Value From Digital Technology

It’s tempting to throw money at the problem, but successful investment in Industry 4.0 tech requires more than just cash. The companies getting the most out of the Internet of Things (IoT), AI, and scalable intelligence are the ones that undertake this journey with specific goals, top-quality communication and iteration plans, and clear roadmaps already in place. Here’s a closer look at these and other fundamentals of Industry 4.0 success.

1. Invest in Communication

In this context, quality communication means having a plan in place beforehand for engaging with stakeholders, frontline employees, site managers, or leaders. The result should be a network of checks and balances, as well as ongoing communication, among a cross-functional professional network. It takes a village to raise a child — and also to deploy Industry 4.0 tech effectively.

2. Insist on Specificity

You’re in somebody’s sales funnel right now. That goes double or triple if you’re actively looking to bring new technology products into the fold at your company. There are plenty of opportunities to be parted from your money when it comes to industrial IoT, IT, AI, ML, or any of the other concepts you can be expected to be pitched along the way.

Salespeople should be precise about how their products solve specific problems — and so should your tech decision-makers.

Likewise, the cross-functional team or communication channels described in point number one above should be specific as well.

Your investment in Industry 4.0 will be more successful if your stakeholders bring a clear-headed approach that focuses on existing business needs and performance shortcomings. If it sounds like a given product offers something you don’t need and don’t anticipate needing within a reasonable timeline, you might be putting the cart before the horse and placing yourself on track to spend money you don’t need to.

3. Set a Timeline

Industry 4.0 investments should always be entered into with a plan and timeline in place. Many professionals arrive at a three- or five-year roadmap for the new networks and assets, for example.

Think of this timeline as a kind of “change story” as well. Each step on the timeline should describe the value that’s at stake — or available for the taking, thanks to new technology. Think about what this deliverable should look like, too. Call on as much data and helpful visualization materials as you can.

And, again, be specific. Match the solutions you find on the market with your operation’s present state of digital adoption and its IT infrastructure. Know what kind of buy-in is required every step of the way. Be sure all stakeholders understand the changes at each step, too, along with how new additions interface with and add value to other points in the organization.

Examples and Possible Steps to Take

Some examples will help with the visualization steps outlined above, help match growth areas to available digital technologies, and make this discussion more practical and concrete. The following is a look at several possible investment areas in digital technology to inspire new possibilities for manufacturing-facility managers and to further elaborate on some of the practical benefits in the offering.

Performance Tracking and Visualization

  • Real-time performance dashboards gather data from assembly lines, vehicles, inspection stations, and more.
  • Reporting and compliance automation removes barriers to transparency and eliminates bottlenecks associated with regulatory compliance. Automating compliance saves money over time.
  • RFID tagging and other techniques for hands-free processing, inventory counting, and more.

Advanced Planning Capabilities

  • Dynamic scheduling for assembly lines and factories.
  • Big-data analytics for studying supply-chain, consumer, and market trends.
  • Warehouse-management systems to optimize stow locations and pick paths make the most of the currently historically limited warehouse space in the post-pandemic world.

Digital and Predictive Maintenance

  • When condition-based maintenance replaces scheduled or pre-emptive maintenance, facilities save time and money. Unplanned machine downtime becomes rarer as well.
  • Digital work-order dashboards replace manual assignment and maintenance ticketing systems, which results in fewer mistakes and oversights.
  • Digital shutdown and energy-monitoring capabilities enhance planning and execution, bolster safety, and ensure responsiveness concerning energy usage and carbon footprint.

Automating Resupply and Material Handling

  • Automated robots and conveyors streamline handling and de-palletizing operations while making them safer.
  • Internet of things (IoT) sensors and advanced inventory-management systems facilitate the automatic flagging or re-ordering of mission-critical supplies.
  • Driverless pallet trucks and other guided vehicles traverse manufacturing and warehousing environments more safely than human heavy-equipment operators, and more efficiently.
  • Warehousing and manufacturing managers report improved decision-making after adopting key automation technologies.

Cybersecurity is an additional opportunity area unlocked by advanced digital manufacturing technologies and automation. Cyberattacks are on the rise in factories and other critical infrastructure, but advanced cybersecurity automation protects these systems by studying network activity and flagging suspicious actions — including bad actors who might seek to halt or alter a factory’s workflows.

Digital Tech in Manufacturing Delivers Opportunity

Digital technology in manufacturing is a broad field that grows more consequential and exciting by the day. Industry 4.0, joined with manufacturing, is expected to result in an industry that is vastly more cost-effective, responsive, and adaptable to disruptions, as well as better able to balance supply with demand. The backbone of these technologies is automation, but this simply enhances human decision-making — it doesn’t seek to supplant it.

The manufacturing industry still needs to add as many as 4.6 million jobs within the next decade, of which 2.4 million positions may remain empty. Digital technology will help close these skills gaps in the most critical industries and ensure the resulting workforce does the highest-quality, lowest-waste, and most highly efficient work it can do.


Article by Emily Newton

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized. She has over four years experience covering the industrial sector.