Four steps to kickstart your digital factory journey

3 mins read

Richard Simmons, European chief technologist for IoT at Logicalis UK, explores the future of digital factories and the first steps to getting there.

We are entering the age of the digital factory. Yet despite all the hype from product vendors offering the latest gadgets to transform the working environment, the real journey is only just beginning. The reality is less about companies making huge operational savings overnight by investing millions in creating fully integrated operating environments. It’s more about iterations and increments. Test and learns. Where just one in four pilot projects make it into production.

So how can we break down the barriers to successfully digitising and automating the factory environment? How do you tackle a task of this magnitude? The same way you’d tackle eating an elephant (or an elephant-sized pizza for that matter). One bite at a time.

1. Take ownership to manage people and process

The transition from manual to automated processes can feel very much like man versus machine. The paranoia may seem perfectly justified when we read that factory production jobs are being replaced by robots, and that sensors - not engineers - are monitoring the health of machines. But in reality, the success of delivering a digital factory still lies with us humans.

IIoT is driven by technology, and that technology is an integration between Operation Technology (OT) and IT - two sides of the business with very different needs, procurement cycles and downtime allowances. Unifying these departments is critical, and what’s needed is ownership in the shape of a Head of Digital or Head of Industry 4.0 who has a view across the business, ensuring all divisions are working towards a common view. Let’s not forget that IIoT brings change, which brings resistance. It’s important to have a strategy in place to manage the human impact of automating processes and using sensors to replace certain tasks, both of which can threaten jobs. So while the digital factory may appear to be about technology, it’s still culture, people and process that decide its fate.

2. Look for a partnership approach

Don’t be fooled into thinking that digitising factories has been done countless times before. Many manufacturers are still finding their feet, starting out with small-scale pilot projects to test and learn. Many don’t have the platforms needed or the in-house skills to move pilots into production. Manufacturers can bring this expertise into the business using external service providers that specialise in IIoT, but finding a trusted adviser is only part of the puzzle. What’s needed is a true partnership approach.

No one understands how a business operates better than the people who work in it, but OT and IT teams often work in silos. Creating a partnership team between OT and IT, lead by a Head of Digital, and with external IT partners can help build bespoke solutions using the best technology for the job. External consultants will consider legacy plant, business needs and security; finding the best place to start with increments that are applicable to the business.

3. Work out what good looks like

In the words of Lewis Caroll: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”. Delivering a digital factory should start with the end in mind, and setting the right standards early on in your journey will pay dividends. In order to set standards, it’s necessary to understand what success looks like and then create a template that influences every decision so that you’re always working towards the same goals. Don’t buy an app that isn’t open to access data generation. Don’t buy software that you can’t link up to other systems. If you’re moving to the cloud, consider cloud-only solutions. Set your standards in concrete and you’ll create processes and a culture that supports your journey.

4. Don’t bite off more than you can chew

Building a digital factory, when viewed as a whole, is a pretty daunting project for any manufacturer, no matter how technologically advanced. The key is to break down the task. Start with increments based on pilot projects that are inexpensive and have an immediate impact. There will be obvious areas to drive operational efficiency, from improving service to reducing waste, and focusing on pain points is a great way to add value.

Predictive maintenance gets talked about a great deal, but many manufacturers are still a way off. Complicated machine learning models are not where you want to start, whereas understanding if a machine is running within optimal range can have an immediate impact. As long as there is a strategy and standards in place, starting out with projects in small incremental chunks, delivering feedback that you can use, makes the mammoth task feel manageable.

In conclusion, the digitisation of the factory has a tangible effect on the business as a whole. It can unify the siloed OT and IT divisions, and create a change in culture that embraces innovation. People, processes and culture will be more important than ever to foster new ways of working side by side with the many layers of the digital factory - devices, connectivity, data and automation. Partnerships, ownership and standards are the foundations needed to support a brave culture of looking, trying, failing and building.