Once again, the world of industry is changing. Since the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s, the industrial paradigm has shifted several times to the point where we are now entering what has become known as the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0 for those who like a bit of jargon.

In this air of change it’s vital that manufacturers stay ahead of the curve, adapt or perish. This involves some pretty major changes to business plans however and isn’t as easy as buying some new computers.

Digital transformations

The process of a digital transformation is essentially what is necessary for a business to keep abreast with Industry 4.0. More than simply moving from typewriters to computers, a digital transformation involves bringing automation and software into as many aspects of your procedures as possible.

Put succinctly it is the introduction of cloud-based communications, mass-automation, and robotic assistance into manufacturing processes.

This is where the term ‘Internet of Things’ comes in, another term you may have come across. The Internet of Things is the generalised means of describing the incorporation of previously ‘dumb’ items (as a pose to ‘smart’ items, like smart phones) into the network.

In terms of manufacturing this includes items such as sensors and machinery, allowing them to feed information to a central system via the internet. Changes such as these have the benefit of not only increasing productivity but also freeing employee time for more creative tasks.

As with any revolution there are multiple ways of going about it, no one method is any better than the other, it’s a case of matching your process to your business model.

Francesca Cassidy lays these out brilliantly in her article ‘The straightforward guide to digital transformation’:

  • Strategic Partnerships – whereby you bring in an external team of experts who work alongside your existing staff to implement the new systems and ensure your staff are adequately reskilled.
  • Digital Innovation – is where you create a test space for new methods and technology, inhouse. This is a concept that has been applied by a number of businesses such as Porsche, who have their own Digital Lab to test innovations such as AI. This method allows for insulated testing and avoids the interruption of normal operations.
  • Dedicated Change Teams – is another inhouse method which involves the selection of creative individuals from within your existing staff. These individuals then form a team who are responsible for driving your digital transformation.
  • Top Down – is the final option and involves a considerable dedication on the part of the CEO as they act as the principle driving force behind the changes.

As stated before, it’s not possible to say which method is best it’s simply a case of analysing your particular set-up and selecting what you think will be the most effective means of driving change within your framework.

One of the most important factors to bear in mind no matter which method you chose is that employees must come first. This principle has several implications.

Firstly, the technology that you choose to make use of must be easy to use. If the user experience (UX) is clunky or difficult, employees are less likely to make use of it and could render your changes pointless.

Further to this it is absolutely vital that employees understand the changes taking place. They need to know why they are happening, how they will help and who is responsible for given sections of the change.

Finally, there must be a positive culture of joint responsibility at all levels of your organisation, making employees feel like the changes are to their benefit (which they should be) and that it is only through their efforts that the company advances.

“Creating dedicated project teams or launching innovation labs are certainly options, but real success comes from creating an internal cultural mindset that everyone has a part to play, from the rank-and-file employee to the board.” – Rob Lamb, CTO of UK & Ireland, Dell EMC.

Cases of where the wrong approach or lack of one have led to complete company meltdown and bankruptcy more than once in recent years. This is in fact what finally killed Blockbuster, who were on a track to attempt to place themselves as a rival to Netflix. They failed thanks to an incohesive strategy and an out-dated mindset.

FluidTrend as a case study

As a case study into methods of digital transformation and the kind of software available for manufacturing companies in particular to take advantage of, FluidTrend is somewhat ideal.

FluidTrend is an intuitive piece of software which we at Formation developed in house on behalf of Houghton and is aimed at enhancing metal working fluid operations. The software is capable of collecting information from all of the relevant machines that are operated on a day-to-day basis and analysing it.

From this information it is then possible to create reports and access the data more readily, all in one place. This saves on man-hours spent manually collecting information from different machines and creating reports and greatly improves operating efficiency.

It also serves to notify operatives of any urgent issues with fluid operations that require attention, with the use of a simple traffic light system.

Using this simple piece of software, designed around usability and reliability, users are able to significantly enhance efficiency. Thanks to an intuitive UX, any employee re-skilling is minimised also.

This is the perfect example of the way in which a simple piece of software, usable on a variety of portable devices, can drastically enhance industrial operating procedures and serves as the ideal case study for digital transformation.

The way forward

In the UK, the government itself is making moves to encourage manufacturers to move towards a digital transformation process. Made Smarter is a recently commissioned report, and subsequent implementation, focusing on the subject.

The upshot as far as SMEs in particular are concerned is that in the latest budget announcement, Phillip Hammond promised an investment of up to £121 million to help develop industrial processes and keep the UK up to scratch.

It is estimated that close to 1 million engineers will need to be reskilled in accordance with moves towards industry 4.0 just for the UK to remain competitive.

Other European governments have been busy implementing similar funding schemes of their own, increasing the need for the UK to keep up.

During the course of the changes ahead it’s imperative to remember three principles, again as summarised by Francesca Cassidy:

  • Always be realistic. Asses what is feasible and don’t attempt everything at once
  • It is more about mindset and approach than it is about any set technology
  • Cultural change is vital for digital transformation to work, so getting your people on board should be your first concern.

To find out how Formation can help bring your business into the 21st century, contact us today.