Finding the right starting point for going digital

Published:  06 October, 2021

We all hear much about digital transformation and the business and operational benefits to be had within manufacturing and engineering. However, in order to get the ball rolling companies of all sizes need to decide on an initial point of entry, and what elements of the digital journey to home in on in the first instance. As Aaron Blutstein, editor of Smart Machines and Factories, said during the recent DFA Media organised Talking Industry webinar on Digital Transformation, one of the biggest issues regarding the topic is getting people on board because some companies are so entrenched in their daily routine that there can be a challenge in getting them to recognise that something needs to change.

In response, Professor Sam Turner of HVM Catapault suggested that the starting point digital should be focus on solutions that can improve things such as performance and competitiveness, improving quality, reducing lead times and reducing cycle times. He added that there are many solutions available that can help to improve machine uptime prognosis around maintenance, for example. “So, the place to start is to think about what you need to address anyway rather than thinking about why you have to go digital,” he said.

Sam Thiara of MCS Control Systems made the point that when you’re looking at the application of factory automation where you improve the automation of manual processes on a machine-by-machine basis companies often have little isolated islands or silos of data that then have to be connected. He added that one of the pieces of advice MCS Control Systems gives customers is if you’re looking to resolve a particular operational problem keep that end goal in mind because you will also need to connect all of these possible isolated islands of new data that need to come together to allow you to predict the performance of the business over the longer term. Therefore, Thiara maintains that there is a need for a bottom-up approach to fix a problem but also a need to keep in mind the top-down approach with regard to the whole enterprise.

What Michael LeFeuvre of Red Lion Controls sees in the field is that the most successful experience is when the companies initially only digitalise what they do manually. So, he believes the first step is to keep what you do manually, and with exactly the same data, and begin to digitalise this. He adds that you don’t have to do too much in the first stages of digitalisation, because otherwise people are not capable of adapting quick enough if too many new digital processes are taken on board in the early stages because of the complexities involved. LeFeuvre believes if you keep the same systems you use to manual tasks – for example, with Excel or paper – and digitalise these, this will produce the best experience and results.

Digital transformation can seem like a daunting topic, with so many terms to comprehend and relate to your own individual operational processes – Industry 4.0, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Smart Factories, Digital Twins, Machine Learning, Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) etc. However, when these concepts are considered and applied with a keen focus on a specific process or methodology you rely on each day – for example, tasks that have been operated

manually all these years – then improvements can potentially come to fruition with ease; improvements such as those cited by Professor Sam Turner: better quality control, reduced lead times and reduced cycle times. The benefits are there to be had. In many cases, it’s just a case of taking one step at a time.

Ed Holden, editor Hydraulics & Pneumatics magazine

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