Digitally transforming in the manufacturing industry By Tom Baldwin

Like many other industries, the pandemic significantly accelerated digital transformation in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturers had to cope with major disruption to both the workplace and supply chain, with many finding they could no longer rely on local spreadsheets and applications for effective operations. Consequently, digital transformation plans that had been several years away suddenly became a top priority.

The concept of digital transformation in manufacturing is relatively simple to understand but deeply complex to implement. Manufacturers are applying technology to reduce costs, increase agility, enhance quality, and ultimately maximize revenues, with use cases ranging from workforce productivity to asset utilization.

Digital transformation requires organizations to rethink how they are delivering to customers and stakeholders. It’s not enough to use more technology for existing processes. Instead, it requires a fundamental shift in how enterprises leverage technology, operations, and people to optimize performance.

Rapid technology development also helps to drive advanced applications such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, automation, edge computing, and decentralized management. To ensure success in the future, manufacturing technology leaders must spend time exploring the drivers and benefits of their digital transformation strategies now.

Manufacturing digital transformation focus areas
We’ve seen dramatic shifts in the ways people work. This includes team-based remote and hybrid models and an overall focus on business agility. These shifts highlight the need to move beyond thinking of digital transformation as just an IT challenge.

• Business Continuity & Resiliency
The disruptions of the past few years highlighted the need to improve business continuity and resilience. Global disruptions, from pandemics to political tensions, are a fact of life. While preparing for every eventuality is impossible, a manufacturing organization must have systems and processes to respond to events and continue operations.

• Innovation
Data generated from manufacturing and design can help improve product designs and factory efficiencies. However, the main value is in strategic planning. Leaders can use real-time data to make decisions that impact the organization in the short and long term. Data can reveal insights and opportunities in operations, processes, suppliers, and materials that accrue to the bottom line. Manufacturing organizations may be able to develop digital products and services. This can be done as separate revenue streams or as supplements to existing lines of business.

• Agility
Paper-based systems and spreadsheets hold organizations back from leveraging the digital productivity advantage. Moving a digital workflow enables a company to automate many processes through artificial intelligence and rules-based machine learning. Manufacturing companies will be better able to match production cycles and product demand for greater operational agility.

Manufacturing digital transformation best practices
Organizations that have successfully navigated digital transformation challenges take a holistic view of the process. It should be an interdepartmental, strategic initiative that examines the enterprise from these perspectives.

• Culture
This aspect must be in place before any technology implementation is even considered. In a recent study, 46 percent of companies identified culture as an barrier to transformation. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of cultural changes that would have taken much longer to realize. However, keep in mind that employees must be trained or hired with the requisite skills to fully make the most of the technology. Engineers must be involved in designing and implementing systems, and data analytics experts are needed to prepare, process, and analyze the flow of information flowing from the systems.

• Strategy
Simply overlaying technology to automate or digitize existing processes and products isn’t the answer. Companies are finding that digitization efforts reduce expenses while enhancing customer engagement at lower costs. For some companies, the plan has shifted from boosting profits to enhancing business continuity, resiliency, and agility.

• Processes
Many companies fail to modify business processes or optimize connectivity solutions for broader applications, leaving significant value unrealized. Before technology decisions are made, organizations must review the procedures already in place. Automating inefficient or outdated processes will only lead to the failure of the transformation initiative.

• Technology
Technology is perhaps the least complicated aspect of digital transformation after the other elements are in place. Adopting the cloud computing model for enterprise IT helps establish a platform for digital transformation. It pairs with edge computing capabilities through IoT (Internet of Things) sensors and rugged mobile devices on factory floors and warehouses that tap into real-time data flows for unprecedented visibility into various processes. The introduction of 5G networks can help companies implement or upgrade robotics and supports bandwidth and speeds to make decentralized decisions on the factory floor.

In the space of just a few years, digital transformation has gone from a nice idea to a critical requirement for manufacturers looking to future-proof themselves against unknown challenges and disruption. As the pandemic proved, business leaders that aren’t willing to adapt and embrace digital innovation in a timely fashion can quickly find themselves on the back foot when the unexpected happens. For those that haven’t done so already, it’s time to embrace digital transformation.

For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor

Tom Baldwin
Tom Baldwin is Sector Lead for Manufacturing, Transport & Logistics at Getac. Since 1989, Getac has been providing rugged computing solutions for demanding professionals in extreme environments. Getac serves a wide range of vertical markets including military & defense, law enforcement, public safety, emergency services, utility, natural resources, oil and gas, telecommunications, transportation and industrial manufacturing.