A Compelling Case for Digital Transformation In Manufacturing

Two men collaborating around computer monitors.

Cary Bandstra | February 6, 2024

The era of push-button technology and manual operations in manufacturing is behind us. Automation and advancements in analytics have revolutionized the industry, offering resilience against hardware obsolescence, security risks, and workforce shortages. Embracing digital transformation is the key to maintaining competitiveness in the current environment and seeking help from experts is key.

Digital Transformation’s Role in Manufacturing

Digital transformation involves upgrading technology from manual or semi-automated to full-fledged automation. This streamlines operations and gives companies detailed digital insights into the plant's performance for improvements.

The path taken to achieve this goal varies and depends on the type of technology used. In most cases, this means adding more data infrastructure to handle the information and upgrading hardware to accommodate the programmable logic controller (PLC).

Manufacturing’s Need for Digital Transformation

There are several reasons to embrace digital transformation in the current evolving industrial landscape. Three of the most crucial ones are:

  1. Hardware obsolescence: All equipment will eventually have an end of life. With digital transformation, after an evaluation, facilities can have a database of all gear and devices with lifecycle and manufacturer information. This can help companies create a replacement schedule and avoid unplanned downtime.
  2. Cyberattacks: Proper digital infrastructure can help protect your plant and assets from cyber threats.
  3. Worker shortage: Generally, automation leads to less of a need for the number of workers. An automated workforce can help create a streamlined process and reduce challenges if a workforce shortage occurs.

Starting Your Digital Transformation Journey

Companies must assess their position on the digital transformation spectrum. This evaluation covers fundamental aspects and poses questions that might not be part of regular considerations. Questions like the current state of infrastructure, existing hardware, plans for future expansions, server patch updates, and the availability of necessary parts in case of equipment failure need to be addressed. This is then fed into an analytics solution.

Some organizations have in-house experts to conduct these evaluations and create a path forward for digital transformation. Alternatively, if this isn't feasible, numerous experienced systems integrators can help.

Four Benefits of Implementing Digital Transformation

What exactly are you getting from making this move to transform your facility? Here are four benefits.

  1. Enhanced cybersecurity. The proper infrastructure will help companies protect themselves against attacks.
  2. Improved quality of products. Automation allows machines to do the work to ensure batch testing and quality analysis. In the example of a recall, a digital system can help you know which products an ingredient was used.
  3. Fewer workers on the plant floor. This can help companies navigate the workforce shortage by reducing the number of operators needed.
  4. Better decisions. Digital transformation can provide data and visibility into equipment and processes to help companies make smarter business decisions.

Here's a practical example of how digital transformation can make a difference. We had a client with a manual pellet mill, where someone had to sit next to equipment and adjust settings all day. After conducting an audit and making some upgrades, the plant's daily throughput nearly doubled. We also implemented data analytics for cost, throughput, and quality monitoring. Now, they have reporting functions that provide insights into tolerances, ingredient details, and all the necessary information for producing their products today.

When considering digital transformation, working with a knowledgeable partner is crucial. It's not just about swapping hardware; you must think about what tools are available now and needed for the future. Don't limit yourself to just upgrading outdated systems. Include various elements in the process to add long-term value. Aim for a complete modernization, even if it takes time, to give your organization a solid foundation for the future.

This article was originally published in Control Engineering.