Disruption can be expected, but shouldn’t delay your digital transformation journey

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered – G.K Chesterton, ‘All Things Considered’

It’s said that failing to plan is planning to fail. Luckily, while it’s impossible to know just how profitable (or enjoyable) a digital transformation journey will be for manufacturers, a good map can minimise the chance of being tripped up.


Are you setting out in the right direction from the start? Image credit: Pixabay


Step 1 – Discover and map the journey

Graham Upton, Chief Architect – Intelligent Industry at Capgemini, says to think through how everything connects, including the manufacturing execution system (MES) as a fundamental part of the jigsaw which, linked back to the scheduling system, makes for a “fully automated smart factory”. Digital transformation is typically about developing a seamless flow of data. He also states that the up-front plan is also where macro risks should be considered.

That’s true whether you’re talking about geopolitical risk or supply chain challenges, agrees Roger Thomas, VR/AR lead for the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) project supporting North-East SME manufacturers.

Benchmarking documents should be created for the end of each cycle, entailing a few meetings and some “quality” research to ensure nothing is missed out.

He says: “If your flowchart replicates another part of the flowchart, maybe you can connect them together, do it better, without disconnect,” adding that it is also important to keep an eye on critical tolerances, especially when data moves departments.

Step 2 – Break it up into bite-size chunks

Disruption is ultimately about making changes – which is kind of the point. However, disruption may be minimised by taking baby steps where possible.

Peter Ruffley, chairman of IT company Zizo, agrees. “Shouldn’t the question be how much pain is it worth? Calculate not just the internal value of the project but the value to suppliers and customers. Define small wins where you might see increasing gains in efficiency quickly, driving other areas of the business to want to get on board.”

Guidance Automation’s Managing Director Dr Paul Rivers echoes this view. “Identify the right processes to automate; be realistic and pragmatic about the affordable and achievable degree of change. Process review and assessment can better understand where automation can be deployed, or release staff to take on other tasks.”

Mark Hughes, UK & Ireland Vice President at ERP vendor Epicor, agrees, noting that digital isn’t the only challenge right now. “Understand the journey you’re on and the steps you need. Prioritise the steps that add value and leave the rest. If the technology makes life harder, your planned implementation is possibly not right for your business at this time.”


Lego character holding camera - tourist - Pixabay

Changes entail disruption – so plan your waypoints with care. Image credit: Pixabay


Case study – Airbus, flying step-by-step

A digital twin of an Airbus warehouse in Puerto Real, Spain, now uses a Virtual IoT Maintenance System (VIMS) as the aerospace manufacturer pushes to slash down-time and streamline production.


Toy airplane - Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

Enhanced visibility throughout the production line means staff can respond to disruptions as they occur – moving from reactive to proactive fault management, thus saving resources. Daily warehousing tasks can continue meanwhile. Cutting discs for multi-axis machining, with lots of tool changes, were bursting, causing lots of damage which had to be cleaned out and repaired. Previously, they would be waiting for the maintenance teams to arrive because machines were failing.

Data from IoT accelerometers enable Airbus to reduce costs, failures, down-time and disruption. Sensor data has enabled algorithm development, with Airbus now extending the idea across more machines. The next step is to link it with local SCADA, feeding into the MES, with an IoT platform ‘sitting in the background’.

“We’ve now got full visualisation of the factory, of all the machines,” says Graham. LoRaWAN wireless is now swapped out for more robust 5G-enabled mobile devices, tackling line-of-sight issues, after which the transformation is set for wider rollout.

Step 3 – Bring everyone along for the ride

People at all levels should understand and be able to contribute through Steps 1 and 2. Little proofs-of-concept in isolation can stall once rolled out widely, and scale-up must be considered – so get IT teams on board as well, right from the start.

Russ Kennedy, Chief Product Officer at cloud computing firm Nasuni, explains that digital transformation often exposes resources to breaches and attacks, not least when moving applications into the cloud.

“Is cloud storage needed for file storage, multi-site file collaboration, or archive file storage? Consider how to support existing file infrastructures – servers, supply chain, remote access, backup, security, and disaster recovery,” he says.

Phani Bhushan Sistu, Vice President of IoT Solutions, Hitachi Vantara, confirms that spending that extra effort – perhaps an hour or so a day – up-front to think about it all, from ground level to front line and beyond, is crucial. It’s not just about designing a pilot or proof-of-concept correctly to show it connects and collects data.

Understand purpose and ambition right off the bat, for today and the future. This will also entail profiling all the user personas. “Think: the purpose of digital is typically what additional information can be provided to the frontline workers, which could be line operators, machine operators, supervisors, plant managers, and so on,” Phani explains, suggesting also that location differences should undergo a similar thought process.


Toy Ford Bronco on a map - Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay


Step 4 – Analyse friction and reassess direction

After the first three steps, triage again. Phani says that more than 50% of manufacturers have already gone beyond a pilot phase when it comes to digital transformation. Also, it’s important to clarify what disruption means in a particular context.

Consider whether you’ve achieved the right balance for the entire environment, remembering that it’s not possible to completely eliminate undesirable disruptive effects.

“Also, ensure the right level of sponsorship and governance. It’s a programme or a journey – the complex technology landscape will continue to evolve,” says Phani.

He also suggests covering some 80% through proper planning and strategy, leaving some 20% flexibility to account for technology and innovative changes that are use case specific. Think about expanding continuous improvement thinking beyond manufacturing processes.

“Often, part of the business is keen to go ahead and solve a local problem,” he says. “Consider long-term sustenance of key purposes, systems and total cost of ownership, a standardised approach without stifling local innovation.”

Maddie Walker, Industry X lead at Accenture UK, suggests avoiding pilots only relevant to ten percent of the business. With highly targeted interventions, you can not only understand potential disruptions but tailor the messaging and how you work with a given plan, reaching the people for whom it is going to change their job fundamentals.

“We learn, we get something out as quickly as we can, we test it. We learn, we fail, we learn, and then we scale,” she says, also confirming the need for “clear success metrics”.

Bringing people along is crucial, and they’re all different, casual or permanent, with different levels of proficiency and so on. Skills assessment and training must be prioritised. Remain adaptable, but remember the logistics too – does your strategy fit into current schedules and restrictions, for instance? “Then keep iterating, based on feedback,” Maddie says.

Case study – Digital maturity and metrics at Bengalla Mining

Australia’s Bengalla Mining Company (BMC) employed Hitachi Vantara on a digital transformation project to delay a multi-million dollar plant expansion while increasing production from 10 million tonnes to 15 million tonnes of coal a year.

The Coal Handling and Preparation Plant (CHPP) captured information from some 12,500 data points across machinery, processes and systems, fed through SCADA, and other assets. Failures and slow-downs were hard to prevent, as data could not be analysed to fully understand the impacts on processes and workflows – affecting compliance, productivity, governance and revenues.

Implementing Lumada Manufacturing Insights and Pentaho Data Integration software with Hitachi Unified Compute Platform hardware enabled BMC to benefit from data collected across the operation, developing metrics for on-site analysis. Best-practice insights are then delivered to operators in time for them to act on them. BMC ramped up production by 100,000 tonnes in the first year – and over the next several years, expects to spend a tenth of previous estimates. Savings made will alleviate long-term and future pain as well.

Step 5 – Rinse, repeat and review again

Soeren Bech, Vice President EMEA at IT services firm Persistent Systems, says it’s a matter of “disrupting or being disrupted”. Know your ambition and where you are today, and it’s key to engage at the right level.

“Make sure you don’t chew over too much in one go,” Soeren says. “The big super change projects are going to affect everything you do. You need project management and commitment all the way up to the senior leadership, and the right teams.”

It can be about learning how to learn again, as there’s got to be a stretch. This can mean getting assistance from outside the company to ensure strong results, Bech says.

Andy Burton, Industry Director, Manufacturing, at cloud software firm IFS, notes that it’s often the more experienced stakeholders who are wary of a digital transformation – they’ve been through the wars and have the scars to prove it. Finding quality business partners can help, not least because disruptions in a data-oriented world can run the gamut.

A key concern is software incompatibility – especially when you’ve got disparate systems all changing and upgrading at different points, making it tricky to always fully understand what version of X will still work with Y before or after upgrade Z.

Andy suggests the use of an intermediary database between the ‘build’ place or test environment and the ‘use’ place or live production environment, not only that new releases can be separately inspected before being sent live, but there’s an additional ‘blank’ database between them, retaining a copy of all data.

“The longer you leave it, the more has changed and the more costly it is to move from the old system.”

Did we mention the plan?

Rob Rutherford, CEO at IT consultancy QuoStar, confirms that minimising disruption is primarily about effective planning.

Meanwhile, marketing-focused case studies typically oversell digital transformation benefits and gloss over any challenges, while manufacturers may not have the skills they need in-house around programme and project management.

“They may not have much governance around IT, bringing in all areas of the business – they still view them mainly as IT projects,” he says. “But almost nothing is simply an ‘IT project’ nowadays.”

Delaying technical upgrades can ultimately make things more costly. Rutherford maintains that a “good, decent, proven” consultant should be able put some guarantees in, at least around their costs – allaying fears of an expensive rip-off.

Christina Hoefer, Operational Technology VP at IT firm Forescout, warns that this also highlights the need to incorporate cyber risk when developing their approach, because digital transformations will entail OT/IT convergence.

“Many manufacturing sites haven’t been designed with any cyber security in mind and have gone through scarcely documented changes over decades. Rarely are vendors, architectures and security controls standardised across all environments,” she explains.

Subba Rao, Director, Manufacturing Industries Cloud at Mendix, reiterates that a well planned transformation should be worth the pain. An application it helped build for global capital goods company CNH Industrial has halved the effort previously used to understand components’ nature with multiple systems.

“Pain is heavily dependent on starting point and maturity of systems and processes. Embrace co-creation and co-innovation, reducing the burden of complex software projects,” Rao confirms. “And those that don’t disrupt their ways of working will be outpaced.”


Toy camper van image - Pixabay

Life can be a beach – if you make the right operational choices. Image credit: Pixabay


Case study – Saving resources and effort at CNH Industrial

Global capital goods firm CNH Industrial supports multiple industrial sectors with powertrain solutions, from equipment to vehicles. Some 63,000 employees work across 67 plants and 56 R&D centres. Multiple IT/OT systems document bills of materials and related 2D and 3D visualisations of configurations and design – previously involving a time-consuming, complex data gathering process.

Mendix helped CNH build a web-based Digital Product Data application that tied data from multi-site TeamCenter Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), an enterprise-grade engineering Bill of Material (BoM) system and a legacy drawing document management repository together.

Now, CNH engineers can pull info from a single source, achieving a model-based package for collaboration across different parts of the business. This transformed approach delivered an 85% reduction in the ‘clicks’ that employees needed to make to do the task, and a 50% reduction in the overall effort required – effort that had been previously spent working with multiple systems to understand the nature of components in question.

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