Manufacturers Must Embrace Digitalization to Retain Competitive Edge

Jason Chester, InfinityQS

It is now impossible for anyone involved in the manufacturing sector to ignore the importance of the fourth industrial revolution as the traditional image of a manufacturing plant is quickly being replaced by a hyper-connected, digitised factory of the future. Despite the obvious potential of integrating IoT technologies to improve operational effectiveness and offer impressive returns on investment, there is still reluctance within the sector to incorporate the correct quality intelligence monitoring solutions.

In the past, technology investment has been mostly consigned to assembly-line machinery and there are many challenges for manufacturers looking to purchase the correct suite of IT products and services that will modernise their shop-floor environment. The complex variety on offer can prove a significant barrier for procurement and operational executives trying to gauge which solution is best suited to their unique business requirements. Although management are often leading these projects with IT acting as consultants, they have little experience of working directly with IT vendors and are having to turn to their incumbent suppliers to initiate the process.

For years, manufacturers have relied on industry standard quality management frameworks including Six Sigma, Lean and Continuous Improvement to identify inefficiencies and optimise their production-line. This may have garnered valuable insights in the past, but the advent of ubiquitous digitalisation has meant these outdated programs are delivering diminishing returns. By contrast, proactive manufacturers who invest in the latest IoT connected sensors, monitoring devices and quality intelligence solutions can simultaneously harvest and analyse huge quantities of data from each stage of the production environment across different sites. This allows them to make highly accurate, automated, real-time technical adjustments and process improvements that can significantly reduce cost and wastage.

Despite the advantages offered by the latest technical developments, there still a large number of organisations still reliant on outdated methods of information management, whereby quality checks are recorded manually using pen and paper before being consigned to dusty filing cabinets in a basement archive. There is also a tendency to input great swathes of data into excel spreadsheets and databases which are then saved on a NAS somewhere and inevitably forgotten. Although this highlights the antiquated behaviour of a sector seemingly resistant to change, it also emphasises the incredible opportunity for any manufacturer who has not already made the transition to industry 4.0.

Rapid innovation over the last twenty years has completely transformed every industry, disrupting markets and forcing organisations to reject traditional notions of employment. It is no longer in the realms of science-fiction to consider the idea of a smart warehouse populated by dexterous robots with cognitive AI or delivery drones flying over a fully sustainable green city of automated electric vehicles. Market research has predicted that there will be over 20.4 billion interconnected devices worldwide by 2020 and a global industry survey by PWC found that industrial manufacturing companies who embrace the digitalisation drive can expect to reduce operational costs by 3.6 per cent p.a. while increasing efficiency by 4.1 per cent.

While it is tempting to look to current trends around machine learning, robotics and automation, the shop-floor is not ready for this yet and manufacturers must first focus on the appropriate method for collection, aggregation and storage of existing process information. By prioritising operational objectives and working with the correct IT channel partners, manufacturers can successfully implement the latest quality intelligence tools across their entire operation. Once successfully integrated, data from previously disparate sections of the shop floor and supply-chain can be accurately captured, monitored and analysed, allowing manufacturers to receive all the associated benefits of improved productivity, revenue increases and cost reductions.