Defining digital manufacturing

Digital manufacturing is an information revolution powered by technology. While it refers to a host of technologies and process improvements, all are characterized by the use of connected devices to:

  1. Generate new data
  2. Provide a more granular picture of shop floor processes and machine performance
  3. Facilitate communication between humans and machines
  4. Augment workers with tools they need to perform their best

You’ve probably heard the phrase Industry 4.0 used to describe how new technologies are driving cultural, professional, and procedural change in factories around the world. This has been the case with each previous industrial revolution.

It’s even more true, however, for the current industrial revolution.

Industry 4.0 technologies include a mix of cloud computing, connected devices, cyber-physical systems etc. Digital manufacturing takes this technology a step further.

Technological Change is Cultural Change

Adopting these technologies is a starting point for significant cultural change.

Cultural change can be among the most significant changes for manufacturers. It’s easy to add a new tool to a line. It’s less so to change how things are done. Understanding how to foster a digital culture is crucial to succeeding in our tech-driven era.

Indeed, some of the “new” tech, isn’t new. Machine-to-machine communication, while more limited, has been around for decades.
Similarly, robotics, automation, and stereolithography technology used in 3d-printers are new or more flexible applications of pre-existing technology.

What is new is the extent to which new technologies will transform manufacturing work.

Cloud computing and cyber-physical systems hold the real transformative power of digital manufacturing, creating new synergies between humans and machines.

And this is the important part:

Ultimately, people are integral to achieving the full potential of digital manufacturing. The shift is about giving the people involved in production this information to drive greater efficiencies.

The billion-dollar challenge in manufacturing

For most manufacturers–SMBs no less–there isn’t a single billion-dollar problem they’re looking to solve. Factories have unique production processes, people, and products. These conditions yield a multitude of complications. There are unique situations that cause quality issues and other inefficiencies or deficiencies.

Ultimately, the human manufacturing workforce is responsible for 70%-80% of all failures in production.

The human manufacturing workforce is also the most capable of solving these challenges.

Manufacturers don’t need an overabundance of new tech and digitized production lines. They need technology for their humans so that they can see and solve problems in real-time.

Time to learn what you don’t know

The actual performance of a production line–after accounting for rework and workarounds–is often referred to as the hidden factory.

Think of the problems a factory can have as an iceberg. The problems you can solve without human insight are the tip of the iceberg. The problems that you need your human workforce to solve are all the pieces of the iceberg under the water. These are the parts you don’t see.

When considering a push towards digital manufacturing the first step is to learn what you don’t know. Collect that data. Let the information inform your processes and guide the planning behind your digital initiatives.

The goal isn’t to have buzzword bingo on your shop floor. True digital manufacturers are connected, optimized, transparent, proactive and agile. All of these are descriptions of their approaches and responses to challenges. They’re not necessarily concerned about the maturity of their technology. Framing these initiatives this way will help align the stakeholders involved in the project.

Manufacturers need to adopt a new approach to work. Digital manufacturing takes more than an upgrade to more expensive and complex systems.

Industry 4.0 challenges for manufacturers

There are many points where adopting Industry 4.0 technology can go wrong and cause more harm than good for manufacturers.

Complex interfaces can be hard or impossible to use for operators and their supervisors. Custom-coded solutions can require skills that the internal team doesn’t have. This makes them rigid and difficult to maintain.

Sometimes manufacturers over-commit to their first digital manufacturing transformation project. Without a clear understanding of how to make the factory more efficient, the new technology can hurt efficiency and hard code inefficient processes.

Alignment amongst stakeholders is key to success. A lack of alignment can make the implementation team feel like the project is all of nothing. This encourages a higher-risk approach to the implementation.

SMBs are more cautious, often late adopters

In addition to the challenges noted above, SMBs face challenges related to their size and operating power. SMB manufacturers often struggle with IT integrations, connected objects or the internet of things, and digital initiatives generally.

These challenges make SMBs more cautious. This caution is rooted in great concern about the costs of making the transition and general suspicion of the purported benefits of digital manufacturing and industry 4.0 technologies.

This isn’t a misplaced concern. SMBs can see high costs of transition. Proof of concept stages for enterprise manufacturers for months. During a proof of concept, the organization invests a lot of internal man-hours into instrumenting these new solutions. Integration specialists and consultants can add additional support costs during the implementation period. After implementation, these organizations often need to continue to pay for maintenance and technical support or invest in hiring an internal expert.

Managing risk associated with digital transformation

Given this heavy investment, any initiative without clear and immediate value is unlikely to win out. If you break manufacturers into groups there’s a deep valley between the “wait and see” late adopter-cohort and the “just do it and innovate” early adopter-cohort.

It’s easier for large manufacturers to “just do it” because they often have a higher upside with innovation. Additionally, it can be easier for them access to technical talent pools to move these initiatives forward.

What it comes down to for SMB manufacturers is managing risk. Digitizing processes isn’t a unique good. Starting too big is a common cause of failure for organizations of all sizes. However, it can be an even greater risk for SMB manufacturers.

Continuing with our iceberg example from before, the best starter use case for SMB manufacturers is gaining visibility into production processes. Not only because it highlights what they don’t know, but also because it helps them manage implementation risks. Collecting and digitizing data in production will help support business cases for advanced digital manufacturing pilots.

Start with a Sprint

Think of your digital manufacturing starting point as a digital sprint. The goal is to experiment and quickly learn about your opportunities. This data shouldn’t be isolated to decision-makers in the factory. Operators and engineers face challenges in production daily and can help highlight the story behind these metrics. This provides a deeper understanding of problems, process breaks, and bottlenecks.

Illustration of agile process

Make an activity of it so that everyone feels included. Host a hackathon where team members can suggest solutions, share ideas, and feel invested in the culture of innovation you’re bringing to your shop floor.

Without this type of approach, you risk digitizing a broken process. In fact, you should embrace failure at an early stage. You’ll want to fail fast so you know what not to do when scaling solutions throughout your factory.

Digital Manufacturing is a Cultural Transformation

The idea of failure here can be a challenge for manufacturers. Manufacturers often embrace an engineering-driven, process-oriented culture. Process in a digital manufacturer is still important, but the digital aspect demands flexibility. Flexibility is more failure-friendly because it’s seen as a step back versus a break.

Tulip helps SMBs power their digital transformation. The Factory Kit helps small and medium-size manufacturers connect their factories, fast, and makes it easy to bring plug-and-play IoT to the shop floor. Interested in learning more? Check out our webinar on digital manufacturing for SMBs.