Digital transformation is important for smaller engineering firms – but a one-size-fits-all approach is not the answer. Chris Joy, Operations Director at Tadcaster-based engineering firm Tadweld, outlines what digital transformation means in the real world.
It is vital in every industry to make the most of technology and innovation, and few more so than engineering. Industry 4.0 has seen automation and robotics dominate the discussion about the future of the sector, but the engineering eco-system is complex and specialised, and firms vary widely in size.
Ultimately, improving the efficiency of processes is a vital part of running a successful engineering business at any level. This is known as ‘value engineering’, whereby a firm identifies the most efficient and cost-effective way to do a job whilst still delivering the highest quality. This includes removing unnecessary materials, streamlining the manufacturing process, or combining the processes of two separate jobs into one pipeline to make both more efficient.
Tadweld delivers bespoke steel fabrication projects where every job is driven by unique specifications. Our efficiencies are gained by interrogating the specifications and providing our expert feedback to the customer. The bespoke nature of our work means that some innovations are more relevant to us than others, we are not likely to see our engineers replaced by computers, which is why we utilise a hybrid model that embraces innovation whilst retaining a people-first approach.
At Tadweld, we have used computer-aided design (CAD) for more than 20 years and in that time the software has progressed monumentally, reshaping our operations and overhauling processes throughout the engineering sector.
When we first adopted a CAD system, Nestlé – one of our key customers – had started sharing drawings and specifications using the software, so we made the decision to invest in the technology to retain cross-compatibility with customers and supply partners to stay at the forefront of technological development in the industry. Perhaps the biggest new development is CAD utilising 3D design, allowing even more comprehensive mapping of projects, and for us the key is keeping our team comfortable with these developments through ongoing training support.
Technical drawing remains a big part of what we do. The ability of our team to sketch ideas on site visits and then build the detail on CAD when back at the workshop is an effective and efficient way to work. CAD is vital, but our mix of approaches illustrates why we advocate a hybrid approach and value offline skills alongside technological innovation. This approach has created a bit of a learning curve for those engineers who have not spent most of their lives around technology like our younger engineers, but the software keeps getting easier to use and we invest heavily in regular training to ensure our engineers are always up to date with the latest developments.
As with most technological upgrades, CAD is not a one-off cost. Our spend on software totals thousands of pounds annually per workstation, and annual updates are necessary to ensure that everyone is working on compatible versions, as well as ongoing training.
You also need a reliable network infrastructure because, if your network goes down unexpectedly or for a long time, it is certainly harder to make the shift back to pencil and paper to get the job done. Digital transformation goes beyond the four walls of our workshop and requires a robust infrastructure to support it. For some smaller firms it is a barrier to entry, but the savings in materials and labour time are felt almost immediately, making it a worthwhile long-term investment. We also work closely with firms across Europe, so having cross-border compatibility saves time, site visits, and opens revenue streams that would have previously been unviable.
An invaluable advantage of CAD is that we can demonstrate our designs – or specific elements of larger designs – without creating prototypes, saving money and time whilst getting projects signed off with confidence.
The key for us is accessibility; initially businesses may baulk at the cost of new technologies, but CAD is a prime example of an investment that has paid for itself many times over allowing us to win projects that previously would not have been possible.
Automation is not for everyone.
Some aspects of our projects are dictated by industry standards, but for the most part the specifications we work on are unique, and so each job requires a bespoke solution. Automation is most effective when you need to reproduce the same specification many times over, which is not the sort of engineering we do, so we know that automation is not for every business and must be approached on a case-by-case basis.
There is no doubt that automation is a major trend in some areas of manufacturing and will soon be commonplace in many large factories, but there are areas that it cannot replace. We solve problems for our customers, using our knowledge and experience in a way that is unlikely to ever be replicated cost-effectively by automation. Our customers value our people-first approach, and trust that we are always monitoring for new efficiencies and investing in innovations that will keep us ahead of the curve. For our bespoke approach, the bar for new innovations is set higher, and new technology will need to supplement the work of our highly experienced team rather than seek to replicate it.
We are still a traditional engineering firm, but technology and innovation serve to complement the immense skills and experience of our team. The skills of our engineers will not be replaced but new technologies are a highly effective and welcome addition to their toolbox.