Although technology is the enabler for all digital transformation journeys, the starting point is not technology but value creation. The key initial task for manufacturers seeking smart factories is identifying the value outcomes and their strategic intents that will drive market differentiation. From this they can then define a target operating model that their people, processes and systems will work together to create. For example, if a volume manufacturer of breakfast cereal believes that customisable flavours will transform the value they create for customers and their market share over the next decade then they will need to think about how to transform batch sizes, skills, service delivery and innovation levels accordingly.

Mapping out a digital future

With the value goals and target operating model defined, the next phase is creating a digital infrastructure roadmap. This step of the transformation is about comparing existing levels of technology with the technology and application stack required to meet the strategic ambitions.

As with any large transformation programme of activity, the core elements are systems (strengthening technical capability), process (reorganising operations and supply chains) and people (building a workforce with relevant skills). The secret sauce is mobilising the right blend of team and partner skills to complete the entire engagements within the required budget, time and quality. Using proven expertise in this field, with long-standing consultancy and technology partners, will help accelerate the programme and avoid costly mistakes in the development and implementation process, while optimising the outcome.

Digital twins form a notable part of the roadmap, cost-effectively simulating and demonstrating the potential improvements and their gains. Taking the time to create and optimise digital twins can save multiple millions in a digital transformation, and shorten the project lead time by around six months.

Data is the new oil

You may well have heard this phrase before but hopefully this will highlight that the marketing spin came from talking with engineers. Sitting behind all digital transformation is the need for a totally connected infrastructure, from edge devices to core systems to cloud applications. Data is the new ‘oil’ – the whole world seems to run on data these days. And it’s about connecting everything together to make it smarter, and bringing data to the appropriate places ready for mining and value extraction by machines and by people.

Totally connected infrastructure reaches out to the edge with production equipment & goods, lighting & heating, windows & doors, assets & people. It also embraces the many applications that sit on top of the data infrastructure and how they link into software suites such as PLM (product lifecycle management), MES (manufacturing execution system), ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management). Again, the right partner experience is critical in understanding the handshakes between different factory software applications and the underpinning connections they need.

Implementing a common data infrastructure that is cyber secure, highly available and future-proofed for later developments is enormously beneficial for factories in today’s highly competitive manufacturing arena and can double OEE. In addition, an intelligent factory building generates energy savings typically amounting to around 1% of the company’s total operating costs. That’s 1% moved from cost to profit and a reduced carbon footprint just by using data. And literally replacing oil.

Months not years

It is possible to reach this stage of transformation in a matter of months, not years as many assume. Furthermore, taking this structured approach will help to maximise value and greatly reduce the cost of the digital transformation journey, especially when applied to multiple sites.

The key is selecting the right experts to help turn ideas into reality based on real manufacturing experience. Always seek out a specialist that can offer a blend of data infrastructure, applications layer and front-end technology expertise, either in-house or through tried and tested partnerships.

Taking the road to digitalisation is akin to industry’s previous switch from steam to electricity. It took 20 to 30 years for the vast majority of factories to make the leap, but leap they did. Fast forward to the present day and the same applies. The digital transformation is inevitable, so it simply becomes a matter of timing. There is a familiar curve that identifies the five stages of technology adoption: ‘innovator’, ‘early adopter’, ‘early majority’, ‘late majority’ or ‘laggard’. The innovators and early adopters have been and gone. Factories can make their choice from the remaining three accordingly.