• By Bill Lydon
  • The Final Say

To be competitive in your industry, it is important to understand the difference between continuous improvements that leverage new technology and manufacturing digital transformation.

Right now, the industry is at a tipping point for manufacturing digital transformation. Many things are enabling true transformation, including the large influx of new and powerful low-cost technologies, cloud and edge computing advances, embedded computing innovations, labor shortages driven by demographics, and make-to-order manufacturing demands. These elements empower countries around the world to create highly competitive manufacturing and production operations. These operations are motivated to transform.

Transformational change happens infrequently at intervals, which leads companies to believe that maintaining the status quo is the best strategy forever. For perspective, years ago there were huge arguments about analog (pneumatic and electronic) versus digital PID control, leading some to wait too long to convert to digital. Making refinements on existing assets when industry is at a tipping point can be a sunk cost trap, with existing production lines becoming noncompetitive.

Henry Ford’s design and production methods are one of the milestones, prior to Industry 4.0, of industrial transformation. With his revolutionary holistic approach to new product design, materials, and production processes, Ford empowered the company to dominate the world automotive market with production of the Model T. Toyota repeated this pattern in the 1990s, leveraging technologies and methods that caused other automobile companies to lose significant market share and jobs.

Many companies, when reporting that they are making a digital transformation, describe applications that are valuable incremental improvements but are not transformational. Incremental continuous improvements can be valuable investments that are evolutionary and organizationally comfortable, because they enhance existing processes. But these should not be confused with transformational investments. In times of significant technological change, when your competitors are transforming to gain a significant competitive advantage, these investments may have only marginal impact on improving your existing operations.

Not transforming production is betting on the incompetence of competitors. This can be extremely dangerous for the future of a company, leading to loss of business and jobs.

Due to their knowledge and interaction with a wide range of groups, automation professionals are in a unique position in a company to facilitate digital manufacturing transformation. Automation professionals have the knowledge and know-how to be change agents—informing and educating management about the advantages of applying advanced manufacturing techniques and incorporating technological innovations to transform production to be competitive.

Automation professionals can positively impact their companies—by helping an organization understand the possibilities, showing how to make them a reality, gaining organizational support, and convincing management to invest in true digital transformation.

Automation professionals can make major contributions to their companies by taking the initiative to collaborate with manufacturing groups, creating transformative manufacturing processes and applying technologies such as collaborative robots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and virtual/augmented reality to transform fundamental production processes.

Manufacturing digital transformation requires rethinking fundamental processes. This can lead to radical change that brings significant, environmentally responsible improvements that achieve competitiveness and sustainability.

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About The Authors

Bill Lydon is an InTech contributing editor with more than 25 years of industry experience. He regularly provides news reports, observations, and insights here and on Automation.com