We have reached a point in manufacturing where new and emerging technologies are converging with existing technologies that are now maturing enough to create new waves of innovation on the shop floor—technologies that can leverage the data we already generate in new and transformative ways. The industry has been calling it “digital transformation.” And it’s a hot topic, to be sure. But is that the most accurate phrase to describe this process?
Analog to Digitized to Transformed
Digitization, I would proffer, is the conversion of existing forms of data into a digital format. Digitized data is in the form of binary numbers, which facilitates processing by computers; but digitizing simply means the capture and/or conversion of an analog source
into a digital format. Analog in a manufacturing context could mean quality data being jotted down on a piece of paper by an operator, for example.
I would describe digital transformation
as the process of leveraging that digitized data to transform business outcomes. In the manufacturing world, we have been undergoing digitization for decades—the difference, in my opinion, is what we do with that digitized data. Historically, it has been for record-keeping or generating detailed or summary reports—but that’s not really digital transformation.
Although I will also add that while we have been undergoing “digitization” for decades, it has been predominantly in the form of sensors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems etc. Yet the prevalence of paper-based records in areas such as recording quality, safety, environmental and health checks, or equipment and process monitoring, for example, remains surprisingly (perhaps even shockingly) high.
I’ve discussed the push toward digital transformation in manufacturing many times. Most notably, in recent blog posts: Embrace Digital Transformation to Meet the Demands of a Changing Workforce
and Digital Transformation in 2021 – The Year of the Cloud
. In those posts, I of course discussed the recent global pandemic—as a means for “accelerated digital transformation initiatives across the world,” and as a game-changer for manufacturing, “national lockdowns led to the shift to remote working.”
To be clear, working remotely in manufacturing does not always mean working off-site (such as at home); the term can also refer to a company’s efforts “to protect workers’ health and wellbeing—by limiting the amount of surface contact by multiple workers on the plant floor, and by reducing the number of employees using the same workstations or machine interfaces.” Digital transformation in these terms means moving to the cloud. “Secure cloud-based solutions solve many of these problems and can be adopted rapidly, scaled as needed, and operated remotely.”
To put it as succinctly as possible, digital transformation is where the emphasis is on the second word—transformation
—that is, altering business outcomes by leveraging new and maturing technologies to transform manufacturing processes—from the lineside operator to the executive boardroom and everywhere in between. This helps organizations become more agile, flexible, efficient, and productive, while at the same time remain compliant to internal and external policies and regulations.
And we are also not talking about incremental improvements here—that particular “march of progress” happens anyway, as part of the ongoing evolution of technology in manufacturing.
IT Evolution is Paving the Way for Intelligent Transformation
Legacy IT is essentially unprepared to meet the requirements of new digital business. Therefore, IT evolution occurs through cycles in transformation
. Through each cycle, the returns on a given effort to transform tend to “plateau.” Once you plateau, more significant gains become harder to come by (as the low hanging fruit has been harvested), and then the next cycle of innovation is introduced, and everything repeats. And so on.
The cloud holds promise for manufacturing, enabling rapid procurement of resources, the ability to flex requirements on the fly, and a pay-as-you go (or need) spending model. For many manufacturers, this transition probably seems daunting. How much will it cost? Are my data secure in the cloud? Will my IT resources be able to support the new system?
There is no need to fear—transitioning to cloud-based technology is actually a huge step towards improving manufacturing operations not only at the plant level, but also throughout the entire enterprise.
Thanks to cloud computing, we can now collect, store, process, and analyze vast amounts of information quickly, at a relatively low cost, and in real-time. Mature businesses have the tools to combine internal data storage with external data sources and apply innovative new ways of analyzing that data and accessing results at any time, from any place.
As a result, this enables manufacturers to do things that we have never been able to do, giving rise to transformative
Driving Business Outcomes via Intelligent Transformation
Imagine a manufacturing company that has a problematic production line, suffers high degrees of unpredictability and variability, produces consistently sub-par products, and as a result, generates a lot of waste. It has no way to capture, monitor, and analyze trends over time, only periodical quality measurements at the end of the production process. In short, this company is inefficient.
Now imagine this same manufacturing company turns to the latest technologies, tools, and techniques to fix that problem. It now has the ability to analyze those data streams in real time and continuously identify variation and anomalies, predict necessary adjustments, and ensure that the goods they produce, as well as the manufacturing process, remain in control and where its performance is fully optimized. After that successful initiative, this company decides to apply the same approach to the next line, and then the next plant, and so on...
At what point does this become “digital transformation?” Does the change in the way in which an organization operates have to be “disruptive” for it to qualify as “digital transformation?” Or does the term apply to when an organization turns to new technologies to transform
business outcomes? Is that at a process level? A plant level? An entire enterprise level? In a sense, it’s just semantics…but it’s important to think about because many people believe that digital transformation
is more about sweeping changes, and that just impedes progress that could be made given the example above of an iterative approach to digital transformation.
IT evolution typically follows a cycle of continuous, incremental improvements—improvements that have been taking place for decades. What we are really talking about here is the use of data-driven intelligence to drive transformative business outcomes, by augmenting human workers to amplify their decision making and other cognitive-based processes.
For centuries, humans have turned to tools to augment their capabilities—the hammer, the axe, the lever, for example. So why should it be any different that we turn to information technology to augment our cognitive abilities? Should that be limited to the back-office rather than the shop-floor workforce?
Thus, I would argue that the phrase “intelligent transformation” is much more applicable to describe what is taking place when we talk about digital transformation within an industrial context.
So, I would argue that the real question is this: is your organization happy to evolve incrementally, slowly, over time? Or are you ready to take the reins and embrace intelligent transformation
and all that it offers?
I encourage you to take advantage of the technology at your fingertips today: contact one of our account managers (1.800.772.7978 or via our website
) for more information about our industry-leading quality management software solutions.