Making it happen: digitalising consumer products manufacturing

Digitalisation holds out the promise of many benefits for manufactures. But how can they get started on this journey?

It’s easy to have a vision of what manufacturing could look like if it were transformed by digital technology. But there’s always the danger that your colleagues will be cynical. As a digital champion you say, “We should do this!” And then people on the factory floor close your ideas down by saying, “That’s not how it works in reality.”

There is a gap between the digital vision and reality of manufacturing that needs closing. And until it does, topics such as Industry 4.0 just won’t feature in many conversations. That at least was the opinion held by some of the delegates in Siemen’s half-day seminar on digitalising manufacturing, held earlier this month in central London.

There was no doubt among delegates that manufacturing digitalisation holds out many benefits including:

  • Reduced production line downtime as predictive maintenance kicks in to keep machines online for longer
  • Energy savings, for instance by replacing motors and drives with more efficient versions
  • Better quality products as automation means fewer processing errors are made and manufacturing is delivered to higher quality and more consistent specifications

But despite those benefits, there is caution about what it is possible to deliver through digitalisation, and often it feels simply too difficult and too complicated to know where to start.

A process for digital transformation

So how can manufacturers small and large succeed with digital transformation? Delegates agreed that you need a plan to deliver change, and that will involve:

  1. Having a vision of where you want to be
  2. Auditing and measuring your current situation
  3. Identifying a realistic process for getting to where you want to be; this is likely to involve one or more pilot projects
  4. Scaling up to transform the whole of the organisation through learning from the pilots and sharing insights

1.      Create a vision

You have to start with a vision – what you want to achieve through digitalisation. This can be done at two levels.

You may want to draw a picture of how you would like you organisation to be transformed over the next few years. But you may also want to identify one or two discrete areas where you can run pilot projects using digital technology to increase operational efficiency, quality or flexibility.

Whatever you do, look outside your organisation and build tangible examples of what best-in-class looks like, which you can share with your team so they have something to aim at.

2.      Audit the current situation

Next you need to find out where you are now in regard to the use of digital technology within your manufacturing operations. You do that through auditing and measuring; but you need to get the right data and accurate data.

Accurate data collection can be difficult but digitalisation can allow for automated data collection, reducing the possibility of human error.

Deciding on the right data to collect can be even more difficult. Delegates warned that it is hard to know what data will be useful, so thinking carefully about the ideal data set to collect is important. When you have an idea of what data you need, decide how it will be collected. If current systems don’t allow you to collect the right data, consider whether sensors can be retrofitted to old plant, meaning that investing in new plant is not necessary.

3.      Agree a process

You know where you are (the audit) and where you want to get to (the vision). Now you need a plan for getting there.

Digital transformation is a major challenge for any organisation. Doing everything in one go is very ambitious. So to reach your vision it may well be better to start with a small number of projects that test digitalisation in several different areas of your organisation.

What projects would you select? You might choose the worst performing part of a factory as a candidate for a pilot project. Or you might look at the most critical area of a factory. Ideally, though, these will be discrete areas where change can be made and learning generated without affecting the rest of your operations greatly.

The experience of several delegates was that when planning and running these pilot projects you need robust implementation and change management processes, together with multi-skilled teams including end-consumer champions. It is also helpful to seek opportunities to widen collaboration, for instance with logistics partners and retailers.

4.      Scaling up

Once pilot projects are under way, measurement becomes important. It will be necessary to monitor how and whether the new ways of working are in fact improving efficiency or quality, or are enabling greater flexibility.

In addition, identify potential problems and opportunities for further improvements. Any learning should be fed back to senior management as well as to relevant teams, such as manufacturing operations, quality control and marketing. These learnings can then be applied elsewhere in the organisation or on other pilot projects.

Reducing risk

There are of course risks with the process of digital transformation. Innovation is always a risk because, by definition, it involves new and unknown things. But there are ways to manage that risk.

Digital twins

One way is to reduce any initial investment by developing a ‘digital twin’ of the proposed new system. This would be used to model the system before investing in physical equipment, running different operation parameters, such as differences in ambient temperature, the effect of using different raw materials or demanding different speeds and batch sizes, and identifying potential flaws.

Digital twins allow virtual commissioning of a new manufacturing system. By letting you model your new ideas in a risk-free environment, the digital twin should help you to understand how the project affects the overall manufacturing process and not just machine issues. Ideally, as was noted earlier, the change you are considering won’t affect other areas of the business, so the digital twin model will help you to find out whether that is true.

Standardisation

Another way of reducing risk is to standardise parts and processes, either in line with industry standards, such as OMAC, or formal international standards such as the ISO/TC 313 proposed standard for packaging machinery.

Standards deliver a number of benefits:

  • They ensure a commonality of parts and this means training is easier and operators become more familiar with operating procedures
  • They assist with interconnectivity between different parts of a production line; this may include sharing data on the same interface and using the same protocols for reporting. As the interoperability of machines is getting easier, for instance with Wi-Fi-enabled data transmission, this is increasingly significant
  • It is easier to diagnose problems; standards can make manual interventions unnecessary as the response to fault codes in different parts of a production line can be automated

Unfortunately, standards get a bad press sometimes as industrial machine designers can think they reduce the opportunity for creating points of difference in their products. However, they are undoubtedly beneficial and manufacturers should pressure machine designers to adopt them.

Integrated software

One form of standardisation is integrated software that can be used to control complete manufacturing systems. These systems involve a number of very different elements, such as a conveyor belt, a motor, a gearbox and a drive, all controlled by a SCADA system. In the past, each part of the system would have had its own software to control it. Increasingly, the software for the whole system is now integrated.

An example of this is Siemens’ TIA Portal. With TIA you can program the whole of the production line, or you can program or test an individual part, such as the drive. This approach has several benefits:

  • It helps with user training as only one interface needs to be used
  • It enables common reporting protocols with the same user interface
  • It makes remote control of the system easier as only one connection is needed
  • It allows the use of webcams and other sensors, which provide data that can be used to manage the whole system
  • It means that digital twins can be more easily built

Of course, with connectivity come security issues. IT/OT policies to manage how machines are connected to the wider internet are needed. (Siemens helps here with model documents.)

Getting started

A good way to get started is to explore the emerging technologies that are transforming manufacturing, technologies such as machine learning, automation and big data analytics. Siemens runs education sessions on digital transformation, as well as being able to introduce manufacturers to UK government-sponsored catapults and academic researchers.

Siemens is also happy to demonstrate the potential of digital technology and has facilities at its Manchester offices or at Knowsley, where it maintains a digitised factory.

These initiatives are designed to help manufacturers develop a realistic vision of how digital technology might transform their operations. And, as was made clear during the seminar, a vision is the essential first step on the road to exploiting digital technology to the full.


Siemens helps many manufacturers develop a vision for digitalisation. A good place to start if you are looking for inspiration is Siemens’ digitalisation portal.

For more information, please visit www.siemens.com.

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