An in-depth look at what the digital revolution is and why now by Dan McKiernan
In the last few years, manufacturing professionals have seen a surge of interest in and adoption of new technology tools. As a result, an industry that has seen incremental change for decades now finds itself on the cusp of a profound change. What’s happening now is less about evolution than revolution: a foundational and industry-altering paradigm shift.
Cutting-edge technology solutions are already being effectively developed, deployed, and refined in some of the most demanding and productive manufacturing environments in the world. For the first time, we are seeing inspired solutions and big changes manifested in solutions that start on the plant floor. The plant-floor-level transformation that used to be both expensive and laborious, is now accessible and affordable, as the first streamlined single-source solutions become available.
There are several key pieces to this tech revolution. What makes this moment different than the past is the way in which all those pieces—the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), enhanced connectivity, big data and analytics—are coming together. A constellation of new tech tools and enhanced capabilities are now being integrated into inspired solutions specifically designed to make industrial and production environments more connected, transparent, flexible and efficient.
Let’s first take a look at each of those key elements, and then examine how they are working together to transform manufacturing:
The IIoT provides the underlying connectivity behind the groundbreaking software and systems that industry leaders are now introducing in the form of Manufacturing Integrated Platforms (MIP). It’s the digital framework connecting disparate elements of the manufacturing ecosystem, and facilitating the flow of information in both directions. Among those are scalable and modular digital manufacturing platforms designed to leverage the power of the IIoT across a range of different production or assembly environments. Some holistic solutions offer next-generation digital work instruction platforms that achieve a new level of fast and flexible controls.
Big Data and Analytics
The digital transformation allows manufacturers to not just collect more data—but to do more with that data. Plant managers can utilize real-time production reports and KPIs to monitor quality and production trends. Informed, data-driven decisions can now be made faster than ever before. Some of the best new platforms offer customizable real-time dashboards with powerful reporting functionality. Decision-makers can use these new tools to easily identify and speedily resolve any issues or bottlenecks. Perhaps most remarkably, you don’t have to be a data scientist to take advantage of this new level of transparency and control. Data is presented clearly and concisely, in a way that allows for the real-time optimization of people, processes and systems—not just across the production floor, but throughout the enterprise.
Connectivity and Integration
The best integrated solutions are intuitive and user friendly—delivering both dynamic new capabilities and an ease of implementation and ease of use that separates them from previous tech platforms. Leading solutions are secure, incur minimal network burden, and deliver seamless integration covering ERP, MES, and DMS systems. State-of-the-art cloud-based solutions can be accessed through a user-configurable online interface available at every workstation—and on essentially any web-capable device in the world.
That integration functionality also allows the use of a wide range of connected smart tools like fasteners and gauges, cameras, sensors, pick-to-light and augmented reality systems. Together with vision image management software that easily manages and retrieves production images, manufacturers can achieve previously unimaginable levels of precision and monitoring.
The Digital Revolution
So why now? The ongoing digital/industrial transformation in manufacturing can be traced to a number of convergent factors. One of those is simply buzz. The buzz about Industry 4.0 that has been building over the last 4-5 years has gotten much louder in the last 6-12 months. Growing numbers of manufacturers are beginning to explore their options.
For the first time, those options are not only more powerful, but are also simply more affordable, accessible, and appealing. For many manufacturers, the first step in the digital transformation is the simple desire to get rid of the volume of paper that plagues their people and their processes. Alleviating this single pain point often represents the first step in the digital transformation journey.
We also can’t ignore the role that larger culture comfort with technology is playing here. It’s virtually a certainty that a heightened level of comfort with (and desire for) a sleek unified, paperless solution in one elegant tool can be traced to the personal digital transformation that almost all of us have gone through in a relatively short amount of time. Smartphones and increasingly powerful and user-friendly connected mobile devices have achieved a new level of user-friendly utility in recent years. We are increasingly reliant on those devices for everything from communicating, to shopping, driving, traveling, socializing, spending time with family—and even doing our taxes. Manufacturing professionals are recognizing that a similarly significant digital transformation is possible inside the factory, as well. And for an industry where too many are still bogged down by the complexity and chaos of a multi-layered, multi-disciplined approach, replacing those layers with one integrated, streamlined solution is enormously appealing.
Despite the momentum that has begun to pick up even in just the last year or so, the process is still moving too slowly. There’s still too much paper out there. There are still too many metrics without context or connectivity. Taking that first step on the digital journey can be a challenge—in part because there are relatively few professionals equipped with both the comprehensive solution and the experience required to guide them into the future. But things are changing. Decades of inertia are giving way to thrilling new possibilities. And for forward-thinking manufacturers, the months and years ahead hold the promise of a transformation that will make them leaner, smarter, more connected, more sophisticated, and ultimately more profitable.