Kevin Bull, product strategy director at Columbus, explains how manufacturers who successfully master the constant battle to transform their processes will reap the considerable rewards of digital technologies.

When Harley-Davidson wanted to enhance productivity at its motorcycle plant, the company deployed networked sensors and smart devices throughout the factory to collect data on its machines and production processes. The insights gained through this Internet of Things (IoT) solution allowed the company to shrink a fixed 21-day production schedule for new orders down to just six hours – cutting downtime and saving $200 million of operational costs in the process.

Carmaker Ford has also refined its operations by embracing digital transformation and disruptive technology. The firm had to stop production and use specialist scaffolding or elevated platforms to complete safety inspections at the highest parts of its engine plant, but it now uses small drones fitted with cameras to complete the job, saving time and money while improving safety.

It is exactly these kinds of gains that have made digital transformation essential for manufacturers, but it must be recognised this process will only get more intense as disruptive technologies such as IoT, robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence continue to change the way we live and work.

Huge data gains and new business insights earned through digitalisation

Manufacturing companies constantly seek a better understanding of who their customers are, which has led many firms to create direct-to-customer business models that harness the power of the web. This represents another key area of manufacturing evolution – digital transformation.

The Internet and the potential to harvest large volumes of intelligent data online has revolutionised consumer-facing companies, and now we’re starting to see manufacturing firms building business-to-business ecosystems to get closer to their customers.

Look at US tractor manufacturer John Deere, which launched an online store selling everything from lawnmowers to fertiliser, or plane maker Airbus which now offers products ranging from watches to model aeroplanes online. These portals capture large volumes of customer data which in turns drives new revenue streams and helps companies better understand demand.

Digital transformation also enables manufacturers to collect data from under the bonnet of the company, and not just from the shop floor. Data on everything from sales and supply chains to human resources and finance creates a seamless data flow which can be integrated and analysed, yielding insights into how a company should be run.

Despite the benefits the transition is rarely painless. Factories, for example, often struggle to retrofit legacy sites with the latest technology or to integrate equipment from multiple vendors. Technology is also evolving in increasingly shorter cycles, making it difficult to keep up with the latest innovations.

It is for this reason that companies would be wise to bring in a systems integrator to help them mitigate the complexity of manufacturing transformation. Some companies avoid deploying complicated technology and instead take short-term measures. They focus on a certain problem but fall into the trap of forgetting the importance of future scalability. This could mean after just a couple of years, they discover they need to add new systems, from new vendors, and are then faced with issues when it comes to unifying their IT landscape.

Manufacturing companies must also pay close attention to talent management. As the evolution of technology transforms the way firms operate, the right personnel will be critical to manage new systems and processes. But talented data scientists and other such experts are often in short supply. This puts added pressure on the need for existing staff to be trained up through in-house programmes – and this requires investment.

Whether companies choose to recruit new staff or prioritise upskilling their existing workforce, manufacturers must be braced to make significant investments to ensure employees are comfortable using new systems and processes that arise from digitalisation to optimise company performance.

Manufacturing companies striving to reach a global status need to be thinking about how to improve productivity not just on the factory floor, but throughout their entire supply chain. Technological change will have an impact on every aspect of design and process, from customer choice to supply chain automation. It is essential for the future of the manufacturing sector that all companies, regardless of their size or sub-sector, do not underestimate the challenges that come with digital transformation, but embrace the productivity and strategic advantages it brings.