Why the simplest digital steps can be the greatest

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face if I have to; adopting new technology doesn’t have to be complex. But it is necessary and it is the key to unlocking the opportunities that are sitting in front of manufacturing companies right now.

Moving forwards with advancements in technology brings you two key benefits: reductions in costs and increases in productivity. It’s this double-whammy of benefits that can underpin a manufacturing business’s ability to not just survive these incredibly challenging times, but to actually grow from within them.

In early October, I attended the MTC Digitalising Manufacturing Conference 2020 – virtually, of course. It provided exceptional food for thought which I shared in a couple of my Quick Bursts on LinkedIn. For a quick overview, check out my thoughts following day 1 and day 2. However, we really need to drive home this idea that digitalisation needn’t be as complex or as expensive as we may fear.

Here I dive into what some of those simple digital steps might be. I then look at the obstacles that stop manufacturing businesses from taking these steps and how you can scale them.

Simple digital steps for manufacturing companies
Before we look at an example of the simpler digital steps that we can consider, it’s important to consider why we should go simple. Why not go all out and adopt complex new technologies that disrupt everything?

Well, right now, it’s going to take a somewhat brave or potentially fool hardy, CEO to lead their business into extreme change at a time when the external landscape is already as mountainous as it’s ever been. That’s not to say there isn’t room for large scale digitalisation and change, for some. But for many (from small companies to large) big gains can be made through small changes. It’s a safer route which still brings rewards.

Industry 4.0 adoption doesn’t have to be radical to result in radical.

Nearly a year before Covid-19 came and disrupted UK manufacturing, Chris Prince, global engineering director at IMI Precision Engineering wrote in The Manufacturer about this exact point. His focus was on SMEs, but the concept can apply across the manufacturing spectrum: small incremental steps are the way to ensure change is achievable and sustainable and profitable.

For example, simple intelligent sensors which can “provide a view on the performance of components within a connected system that oversees manufacturing or production” can enable businesses to reach and extend their operational objectives in a value-driven way.

It’s about identifying the low risk elements of digitalisation that are high-performing. So where do you start?

Start at the top with knowledge
As always, profitable change is dependent on leadership from the top. In short, you need digitally aware CEO’s and leadership teams. Technology is not sufficient on its own. It needs to be identified and understood from the very top and fed downwards.

You need leaders who understand how to finance digitalisation. And you need leaders who understand the importance of changing skill bases within manufacturing.

At the MTC Digitalising Manufacturing Conference 2020, three hurdles were identified for businesses when it comes to digitalising their manufacturing:

· Lack of skills

· Data compatibility (especially for factory automations)

· Absence of finance

I would argue that all three of these hurdles can only be scaled with the right leaders. Let me explain.

Lack of skills
There are two notable ways to address the lack of digital skills in manufacturing.

Firstly, we need to upskill from within. We need to give our existing workforces the digital capabilities they need. A good way to do this is by utilising tools and platforms such as Enginuity, Made Smarter and Make UK. Of course, we can also recruit externally too.

Secondly, we need to consider partnerships that bring on board the digital capabilities we lack.

Of course, this means we need leaders who know and understand the value of adapting skills to match innovation.

Data compatibility
UK manufacturers succeeded in realigning with incredible success during the first nationwide lockdown of the pandemic. Yes, we discovered the dangers of offshoring supply chains when it came to PPE, but the industry successfully rose to the ventilator challenge with amazing dexterity.

On an ongoing basis, data compatibility is a hurdle when adopting new technology, but again, it depends on having leadership with foresight and a drive for agility and adaptability.

Absence of finance
Funding concern is an enormous obstacle, but again, the right leadership is vital here. Adopting digitalisation can be costly, so you need the leadership that can identify funds and leverage opportunities.

This is another area where information from the Conference was illuminating. It’s not just about being able to undertake skilled cost benefit analyses. At the Conference it was revealed that there is a staggering amount of ignorance in the field of funding for digitalisation in manufacturing.

A few examples include: 77% were unaware of the Industry Strategy Challenge Fund. 67% were unaware of Horizon 2020 funding. Three quarters were unaware of the Made Smarter Initiative.

How many of your leaders have heard of Equipment as a Service as a way of getting what you need without painfully expensive initial costs?

If leaders are unaware of possible avenues for financial support for implementing digital innovation then the company is blind.

Simple steps with exceptional leadership
Simple digital steps can result in great results. They can enable UK manufacturers of any size to be agile and resilient. But they won’t happen by accident and they won’t happen without the right leadership on board.

Your leadership needs to understand the value of skills and how to develop these within their own organisation. Your leadership needs to understand your own unique challenges in the context of the wider geopolitical and sociological landscape. And your leadership needs to know how to identify and seek appropriate funding.

Then your business will benefit from reducing costs and increasing profitability.

Identify the leaders that can take the small steps that result in rewarding change.

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