Integration: the stumbling block to manufacturing digitisation

The transformation of industry into digitally connected factories of the future is already upon us as manufacturers look for new ways to operate more collaboratively with their supply chains to identify and improve customer value, increase productivity and ultimately yield higher revenues.

There’s no doubt that the role of technology, and cyber-physical systems, has never been more important to manufacturing, as the sector embraces the digital revolution known as Industry 4.0. But as business leaders are faced daily with new trends such as robotisation, servitisation, and the internet of things, it can be difficult to know where to start to understand the needs of the digital customer. The good news is that many manufacturers already have the tools at their disposal required to digitise operations, they just need to think about how these tools will help them achieve their individual goals.

The biggest challenge holding manufacturers back from their strive towards Industry 4.0 is integration.

The industry has been quick to adopt new technology and use systems to improve and automate business processes, but rarely are disparate systems joined up to give a single view of the supply chain. As the manufacturing sector continues to digitise, there is an overwhelming need to have one centralised business solution integrated with other applications and the shop floor, so that analysis can be done at any stage of the manufacturing process, and strategic goals can be measured. This makes it easier to deliver greater customer value from the start of the journey, encourage employees to interact with machines on the shop floor, and improve productivity and efficiency through a streamlined and connected supply chain.

Too many manufacturing businesses think that investing in robots and capital equipment alone will improve automation, but fail to notice that this intelligent machine is often being supplemented by an engineer manually entering machine data into the company’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution in order to monitor its performance and plan for downtime. Many businesses spend vast sums on improving their customer-facing websites, allowing them to place orders and configure their own products on demand. Yet too often, this front-of-house application does not communicate effectively with the back-office ERP system, meaning that when customers do configure products online, there is a team of people behind the scenes furiously entering this information into the ERP system before realising, in many cases, that the required product cannot be configured in this way, or indeed, that there is not enough inventory held to produce the product in the timeframe required. Similarly, a lot of manufacturing businesses are looking to wrap services around their products to add value to customers, but often struggle to keep track of which product is in which location, how these products are performing, and how warranty claims are affected, compromising any servitisation strategy.

The idea that investing in technology and creating new business strategies will accelerate digital transformation is simply not enough if the UK manufacturing sector is to reap the rewards of Industry 4.0. Instead, these technologies and business strategies need to be seamlessly integrated and held together by a centralised ERP system such as SYSPRO, which has open data connections to enable integration through tools such as K3 DataSwitch. If you have to supplement every investment in automation with a manual data-entry clerk, you’re never going to truly connect your manufacturing processes and integrate with the rest of the supply chain. So what can you do to ensure that your digitisation strategy is proving effective?

Firstly, you need to identify and review your existing technology infrastructure. Can it give you the integration you need and handle the masses of data you need to process through it? Look at what your competitors are doing and what your customers need from you both now and in the future and see how adjacent industries are being successfully disrupted. Then decide upon the aims of your digitisation strategy: is your focus cost leadership or product differentiation? Where do your customers see value and how can digitisation improve this? Put together a digital transformation plan in line with that strategy and then find yourself the right technology partner who can integrate all your different systems alongside the existing skills of your own team.

When your front-of-house website communicates effectively with your ERP system, you can set up configurators so only viable choices are made when requesting a product online, freeing up sales staff to concentrate on selling rather than data entry. You can then automatically send these order details to a machine or robot on the shopfloor to schedule production and start to put the product together, sending instant information back to the customer on predicted despatch dates. In this case, customer value is improved by greater flexibility and shorter lead times, without compromising on overall delivery of products. And once the product is despatched, you can attach sensors to measure its performance, channelling this data back through your centralised ERP solution via the internet of things. This enables you to pre-empt service requirements or downtime for your customers, and frees up the engineer who was previously entering machine data back into the ERP system to instead concentrate on analysing results of the wider manufacturing process and making changes to increase manufacturing productivity or decrease design defects.

The technologies associated with Industry 4.0 are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been adopted by manufacturers for many years. The difference is the integrated approach that is required
to get the most out of these technologies and add even greater value to customers. The idea of complete supply chain integration can be daunting, and may seem difficult and expensive, but by having a solid technological infrastructure such as SYSPRO ERP in place, you can begin to take small steps in automation that will lead to larger steps in productivity, customer value, business performance and ultimately, revenue.

In today’s digital age, can your business afford not to take this fully integrated approach to digitisation?

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