Digital Transformation 101: Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast
by Epicor, on Jun 16, 2023 4:48:48 PM
The justified excitement around connected factories, the impact of innovative new technology in production environments, and the powerful capabilities of connected process control has growing numbers of manufacturers looking to introduce these technologies in their own factories and workplaces.
The enthusiasm is understandable. Leading connected process control solutions are flexible, scalable, can be applied in an almost unlimited variety of production environments, and are capable of yielding potentially significant improvements in efficiency, quality, and consistency.
Achieving industrial/digital transformations and realizing smart factory goals can be challenging. Successfully leveraging digital technologies to create improvement across the value chain can be a multi-year endeavor, and ROI isn’t always immediate or evident—especially in the short term. According to LNS Research, approximately 2/3 of industrial operations are committed to industrial transformation programs. However only 20% of those are realizing significant benefits. Additionally, many companies are not automated or “sensored,” with less than 43% of their required plant equipment connected at all.
Sweeping industrial transformations take years and they can lose steam if they aren’t rolled out in a thoughtful, strategic manner. So, while it’s fine to think big (in fact, it’s an important first step), big swings and ambitious goals can actually be counterproductive if not accompanied by an effective, strategic plan for implementation.
To distill it down to the essentials, best practices for approaching your digital transformation are to think big, start small, and scale fast.
Big ideas and grand ambitions are a great place to start—they give you an aspirational end point to work toward. But to get there, you first need to recognize the very real challenges between where you are today and your final goal. A rigorous and comprehensive SWOT analysis can reveal the contours of those challenges and inform a strategic implementation plan designed to minimize their impact.
Let’s take a look at one of the most common pain points that often leads to failure in poorly planned industrial transformations: when a program is introduced that is exclusively a top-down initiative, with no real buy-in from the people on the factory floor who actually have to manage the implementation. Operators may be resistant to change for myriad reasons, including concerns about job security. Other common cultural or structural obstacles include siloed teams, incompatibility with legacy systems, lack of funding/resources, and insufficient technical expertise or training time to streamline the implementation of new systems.
An effective strategy to kick off an industrial transformation process is to start small: identify one problem to solve and grow from there. For example, one manufacturer began with the simple goal of capturing cycle times, which only required two process steps—a button push and an image capture. Identifying the goal and zeroing in on the measurable outcome you’re looking for is an important prerequisite. In this case, time was the metric this manufacturer needed. Those two simple steps let them know exactly how long each product was at each bench—with precise, actionable, real-world data.
There are different ways to start small. The example above illustrates how to start small within an established process. But you can also start small within a facility or production environment, by rolling out new tech or new processes on a single station or a single line—or even in a training lab, instead of jumping directly into what can be a potentially chaotic and even catastrophic enterprise-wide rollout.
One of the best places to start is at an inspection station, where processes are generally already well-defined, and where creating a digital twin of that established process is typically a straightforward endeavor. From there, identifying consistent issues (e.g. loose bolts, scratched casings) gives you a natural launch point to work backwards and introduce additional process changes that correct the issue(s).
Starting small helps with communication and training and gives operators the most valuable resource of all: the time they typically need to become accustomed to new systems, new tasks, and new processes. Management is also often more likely to give you the leeway you need to iron out any initial hiccups and establish proof of concept before committing to a larger investment.
Starting small to create a proof-of-concept project or process is almost always the best way to take that all-important first step in implementing your industrial transformation. But don’t allow yourself to get stuck in pilot purgatory. Establish clear metrics and goals for success, and have a plan in place to expand your program once you meet those goals and establish proof of concept. Be sure to assign a “champion” or dedicated employee to nurture the project and manage momentum.
Although starting small makes it easier for you to begin meaningful implementation in a cost-effective manner, scaling up quickly once you’re ready to do so is the best way to expand your ROI. At this point you have a proven process, a path forward, and a strong foundation that should enable you to grow at a pace and toward a place that matches your original big goals. The journey to true connected process control—and the virtually limitless possibilities to improve operations that it affords—can now pick up speed and accelerate into the digital transformation of your entire assembly, from people and processes to connected machines and tooling.