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Digitalisation can be a gamechanger, but not without manufacturing excellence

Before entering the exciting, and often daunting, world of digital technology and automation, manufacturers should first focus on embedding the principles of manufacturing excellence into their business. Without putting this groundwork in place, the results can be disastrous. That’s where we come in, explains Senior Manufacturing Advisor Geoff Crossley.

We’re at the start of a digital manufacturing revolution that will disrupt many of our current ways of working forever. Automation and digital technology promise huge rewards in productivity and profitability to the businesses who can harness their potential, and there are supportive programmes like Made Smarter in place to provide support and funding.

Given this exciting potential, many people ask why all manufacturers aren’t jumping at the opportunity to embrace and invest in this brave new world. Sometimes there’s a perception that technology is the answer to everything; that British manufacturing is still in a rudimentary era and success is just one ERP system or robot away.

We know that digitalisation and automation is high on the agenda of the business owners we speak to, but we also know that the majority of digitalisation and automation projects fail to deliver the desired results. Many manufacturers that have invested are finding themselves switching off the functionality of their new ERP systems, putting dust sheets over robots, or only using a quarter of the features on their new machinery. So what’s going wrong?


Preparation is key

The truth is digitalisation is not a messiah. British manufacturing is significantly more advanced than often thought (we are after all the world’s ninth largest manufacturer by output), and where there is a productivity problem that needs to be solved, technology is only part of the solution.

It’s important to understand that digitalisation only provides the opportunity for improved productivity, not a guarantee. Productivity is just as much about people and process, and if practices in these areas are sub-prime, digitalisation will amplify existing problems rather than eradicate them. As always, success is down to preparation!

Our Made for Manufacturing service is here to help. We have a team of fully funded specialist Manufacturing Advisors ready to provide their experience to support your plans.


Where to start

The fundamental point of this blog is that digitalisation needs to be part of a wider strategic plan to develop your business, rather than an answer to a specific issue. Digitalising a manufacturing process in isolation rarely, if ever, delivers on its promises.

Remember, those in the market of offering automation and digitalisation products are in the business of selling equipment. Most are highly regarded and reputable, but even the best salesperson can only tell their customers about potential performance improvement in a default, perfect environment.

Most smaller manufacturers are not in perfect environments. We don’t work in shiny purpose-built factories; we work in old mills and industrial units we may have outgrown, with roofs that are sometimes leaky. Staff may be highly skilled, dedicated and outstandingly loyal, but like our buildings, they often have their quirks.

If we just drop in a fancy new piece of technology into the middle of this without giving too much thought to the surrounding context, don’t be surprised when those promises fail to materialise!


Take a step back

As the saying goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. There are three simple rules to keep in mind:

  • Production is only as fast as the slowest constraint (bottleneck) in the factory. In other words, any increase in capacity is always limited to the slowest process. If the theoretical capacity of each process is not understood before changes are made, it’s impossible to know what the new output will be
  • Waste must be eliminated from a process before automation or digitalisation, otherwise it will just grow at the same pace as output
  • People are too often an overlooked factor. It’s important to ensure a shared understanding of automation and digitalisation so they come with you on the journey.


1. Production

When it comes to production, collecting performance data is crucial. Without the right data at your disposal on every single factor, you can easily miss something that can make or break a digitalisation project.

One of the practices we often support manufacturers with is to develop a Value  Stream Map (VSM) of the business, which visualises your whole process from end to end to identify improvement opportunities. Having this reality-based model of production can then be used to understand what effect any changes will have on production. It’s a low technology activity that could make all the difference.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM)

VSM also directly supports the implementation of Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems because they require the same information. MRP systems automate the knowledge flow within a factory, so you need to understand this flow in detail for these systems to work. If you can’t provide the data for VSM, you will find it difficult to implement an MRP!

The same goes for Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). You must have an understanding of what data you need to capture and why – only then will you be able to make the most of bringing digital technology into the fold.


2. Waste

If you don’t have an organised workplace, your digital transformation won’t be organised either. Get the fundamentals right by putting 5S in place and taking the time to fully understand, and remove, the 8 Wastes.

Waste will not disappear when you apply digitalisation – you simply end up digitalising it. If you have a production stream where there is 10 per cent wastage and you install an automated system that doubles output, you are still wasting that 10 per cent. Only now the absolute amount of waste has doubled.

In the worst-case scenario, digitalising a process before first removing waste will mask the problem so that you can’t easily see it or change it. In effect, the digitalisation can bake waste into the system forever.

Eliminating waste first will guide you away from incorrect assumptions and provides a solid baseline to measure which improvements work best. There are myriad KPIs available, but picking the right ones for you will help significantly. 

Learn more about Value Add and the 8 Wastes

3. People

It’s vital that employees are involved from the start in any discussion about what may  change in their process. If they are excluded from those discussions, they may get the wrong idea about what digitalisation means for them and they could  fight against it.

Your employees know their process the best – they know what works, what doesn’t and why. Get everyone on side and they will tell you all the things they’ve noticed that could be done better. Their insight will be a massive help in making the most out of any improvement project.

Involving your staff will also help with the change management exercise required. Sadly, people often fear digitalisation will take their job, making them resistant (whether consciously or unconsciously) to any changes – in their minds, if a digitalisation project fails, management will eventually abandon their efforts and therefore their jobs will be secure. I’ve previously covered this very scenario in my blog on Using Compassion in Manufacturing.

It’s critical for leaders to understand these fears and demonstrate that the digital transformation process is an opportunity for employees to upgrade their expertise, so they too are fit for the employment marketplace of the future.


A great example

A brilliant example of a manufacturer preparing for digitalisation in the right way is Arden Dies, a die and tooling manufacturer in Stockport. It has been working closely with Made Smarter to adopt of cutting-edge additive manufacturing technology, but this is not happening in isolation. It has put itself in a great position for this digital transformation by delivering continuous improvement and lean manufacturing projects on the shop-floor with the support of our Made for Manufacturing programme.

Julian Homer, Production Manager at Arden Dies, is clear that one cannot come without the other:

“Digitalisation for us is part of our wider continuous improvement efforts. It’s really about adding to our existing capabilities and supplementing the work we are doing to improve ourselves, by allowing us to really drill down into our costs and get real, actionable data.

“Some companies may think buying a huge piece of software will solve all their problems. But without underpinning it with practical lean thinking, it’s not going to work, and that’s the approach we’ve taken.”


This is where we come in

In the end, digitalisation promises many things, but it doesn’t provide guarantees. You’ve got to be really sure that the rest of your factory is ready to support it.

Our Manufacturing Service is designed to be that stepping-stone that will prepare you for the exciting world of digitalisation and automation on the other side. Get in touch today to start developing your strategy.

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Geoff Crossley

Geoff Crossley, Senior Manufacturing Advisor

Geoff is a highly skilled manufacturing specialist, practiced in supporting manufacturing businesses to implement lean tools and techniques which will increase efficiency. Geoff is passionate about helping manufacturers work smarter and to do more with less.

With a background in engineering design and experience running a successful business, Geoff is skilled at strategic planning, developing sales and marketing strategies to generate new customers and delivering sustained profitability.

To view Geoff's full profile including technical capabilities and industry experience, please click here.

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