Digital journey begins with ‘What if?’

Manufacturers should always be asking questions as they begin their journey into digital manufacturing because it encompasses so much ground and can bring so many changes.

By Bob Vavra, CFE Media November 15, 2018

We have written at length about the new technologies that continue to emerge in this age of digital manufacturing. From the broad umbrella of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to powerful software analytics, and from the use of augmented reality to the arrival of blockchain technology to ensure network security, we have focused on technology as an enabler of a smarter, safer, and more productive plant floor.

But just what is it that we’re making? How are we actually going to use technology? Those answers vary by industry and by application, but the fact there is so much variance should point to the flexibility of these solutions. The uses are limited only by the imagination of manufacturers and the needs of the market.

When manufacturers begin down this journey toward digital manufacturing, perhaps the first question ought to be, “What if?” But some of those “what if” questions can be a little bizarre. For example:

  • What if you put temperature sensors on the ears of your cow?
  • What if you could tell when a shrimp wanted to be fed?
  • What if you wanted a blue leather steering wheel on your Ferrari?

Actually, those are not such crazy questions.

Andrew Kinder, vice president of industry strategy at Infor, discussed just these issues during the company’s Inforum conference in Washington D.C. last month. In looking at the Factory of the Future, Kinder noted five major trends in manufacturing operations that will be enabled by technology:

  • Hyperpersonalization: Looking for ways to differentiate beyond price by delivering a one-of-a-kind product.
  • Outcomes and experience: Moving from a product-driven environment to a service environment by continuing to automatically support the product after the sale.
  • Smart devices: Products themselves are getting smarter, and manufacturers can imbed that intelligence into the products.
  • Business networks: The old days of the linear supply chain are gone, replaced by a series of partnerships and relationships that can be enabled through technology.
  • Human potential: How will tools and technologies change human potential? Technology is only a tool unless turned into value.

Kinder talked about how a sensor on the ears of cattle can help a rancher understand the optimal time to slaughter the cattle, since the change in temperature can signal changes in the animals’ condition. And shrimp make a different sound when they are ready to be fed, so sensors can detect the change in that sound and optimize the feeding of the shrimp.

As Ferrari looked to create a streamlined and personalized product experience, it also needed to fundamentally change its manufacturing process. If one owner wanted a blue leather steering wheel, how would that request impact the rest of the manufacturing line? “It was a complete re-engineering on the plant floor,” said Kinder. “Companies like Ferrari can offer choices to you as a consumer and transfer it right to the plant floor. When you’re thinking about the digital journey, you have to think about the whole journey.”

And if there is one sentence that ought to be on every plant floor in the world, it’s that one. The digital factory is a great concept, but manufacturing is not a concept. It’s about getting the right products out the door efficiently and effectively, and it has to be viewed as a whole. Individual departments no longer perform individual functions; the plant has to be seen as a whole process with many functioning parts. It’s a superhighway with a number of on-ramps, but everything has to flow together and head in the same direction.

The message at Inforum was that there are many manufacturers who are imagining this future and going beyond that to changing their operation to fully realize that potential.

It starts with, “What if?” Ask that question in your own plant, and you may be surprised by the answers.

Bob Vavra, content manager, Plant Engineering, CFE Media,