• By Jack Smith
  • Executive Corner

The manufacturing industry continues to be inundated with buzzwords. Automation, in particular, has its share of technical lingo. In the mid-2000s, the phrase shop-floor-to-top-floor was prevalent, as was enterprise connectivity and communication. What do analysts and marketers gravitate toward now? Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0, edge, cloud, and digital transformation are now fully part of automation vocabulary.

While much of the underlying technology is remarkably similar to that from 10 and 15 years ago, there are differences that must be acknowledged and understood. For example, the concept of connectivity is not new, but the potential for wisely using data obtained through the right connectivity is the objective to be pursued today.

Consider “digital transformation.” Skeptics say the process is more like an evolution than a transformation. It is a journey and should be treated like one, because once you get “this” done, there is more to do. More innovations happen, more technologies that can solve problems are introduced, and there’s always more to do.

So, is “digital transformation” an evolution or is it truly transformative? It’s actually both. Digital technologies had to evolve to get from where they were to where they are now. On the other hand, when appropriately applied, those same technologies are transforming companies for the better. A smooth digital transformation journey relies on data in digital form, processes that are digitally managed, and the right data at the right time.

It’s a journey

In his article “Digital Transformation Strategy,” consultant Rajabahadur V. Arcot says, “Digital transformation is the process of intentionally bringing about comprehensive changes, after due deliberation, by leveraging emerging digital technologies to achieve overarching objectives, which, in the business context, often includes improving a company’s business, production, and operational processes.”

Arcot also says that digital transformation is driven by the collection and use of data. Digital technologies like IIoT, edge and cloud computing, data analytics, and artificial intelligence are excellent tools for creating, collecting, and analyzing this data. He also says that data digitization and process digitalization are foundational to digital transformation. 

“Digitization is the process of converting image, sound, document, etc., information into a digital format that can be processed by a computer. An example is the conversion of input signals from transmitters to a DCS [distributed control system] from analog signals to digital signals by using communication protocols such as Fieldbus,” Arcot explains. “Digitalization refers to enabling or improving processes by leveraging digital technologies and digitized data.”

What will they call it next?

Digital transformation means different things to different people and different companies. One company may be just starting its journey, while another is reaping major benefits because it is farther along the digital transformation path. Those who are successful approach it as a process of continuous improvement and refinement. “Continuous improvement,” by the way, is more than just a buzzword borrowed from Lean manufacturing concepts. From a technological perspective, automation has always been a driving force for continuous improvement.

Arcot says a company that wants to launch a digital transformation program must ensure that the right data is in a digital format and that processes are digitally managed. If a manufacturer wants to achieve digital transformation, then it must have operational technology systems such as a DCS, programmable logic controllers, and/or a manufacturing execution system already in place. “Digitized data and digitally managed processes are prerequisites to move forward with any digital transformation program,” he says.

Call it what you will—digital transformation or digital evolution—it needs to be done. What are you waiting for? 

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About The Authors


Jack Smith is a contributing editor for Automation.com and ISA’s InTech magazine. He has been a trade journalist for 22 years.