A Tactical Approach to Digital Transformation

Digital transformation is a dominant trend in big business thinking. It’s talked about in Ivy League business schools, top tier consulting firms, and the technology industry at large, as the panacea for the future of industry. Similar terms, like Industry 4.0, Smart Factories, Factory of the Future, are all shades of digital transformation. But what does it actually mean?

Simply, it is the emergence of new technologies converging with a maturing of existing ones which are fused to our physical world to completely transform traditional industrial and manufacturing processes to highly efficient, automated ways of making things fit for the 21st century. It’s even been likened to other industrial epochs like the invention of the steam engine, the assembly line principle, and of course electricity.

The importance of digital transformation in the manufacturing industry is undisputed. Over the last few years most business leaders have begun formulating and implementing digital transformation strategies. Each strategy may be different for every organisation but the general approach will see them taking many years to achieve and requires overhauling every corner of the manufacturing and value chain process, which can be expensive and risky. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, changed all of this with manufacturers putting their strategic agendas on hold while they battle with unprecedented operational challenges as well as volatile and unpredictable markets.

Impact of COVID on digital transformation

One thing that the pandemic did was expose significant and often widespread operational weaknesses within manufacturing. It brought into sharp relief where infrastructure, legacy systems and incumbent processes exacerbated the problems that manufacturers faced. Overnight manufacturers were faced with a plethora of problems that they did not anticipate, including:

  1. Remote working

Moving staff away from the plant floor and into more isolated spaces, or worse still to working from home, which would help stop the spread of the virus according to government guidelines. As a result, manufacturers were unable to access critical operational data remotely.

  1. Reduction in staff

Adapt to a reduced workforce due to illness, self-isolation or restrictions in travel. It was not uncommon for staff to switch to unfamiliar roles to backfill critical shop floor process. Workers who were unexperienced were still required to maintain operational performance and quality standards.

  1. Increase & decrease in product demand

Experiencing a major hit on product demand. This put even more pressure on businesses trying to find ways to cut costs and stay afloat. To combat this, it was important to look at ways to significantly reduce costs, improve efficiencies and reduce workforce, but still maintain what demand was left.

However, some were on the opposite side of the spectrum and saw an increase in demand for products. For those organisations that saw a high demand it was imperative to identify ways in which to maximise throughput and productivity, to meet demand.

  1. Supply chain shortages

Those that found themselves in a position where they saw demand increase for a product also struggled.

Manufacturers found themselves in a position whereby their supply chains could potentially be disrupted or cut off. With such short notice it is difficult to switch supplies to get the raw material needed to manufacture a product.

Using technology to tackle these challenges

What became quickly apparent, were that different types of technology could be used to help address these challenges. For example, cloud-based SaaS solutions can help manufacturers tackle the challenge of working away from the plant floor by enabling staff to work efficiently in an isolated space just like normal. This could be quickly achieved through rapid procurement, deployment and training, typical with cloud-based solutions.

Each challenge comes with its own set of difficulties and overcoming them means manufacturers would need to pay particular attention to the functions, areas and processes where such technology solutions could have the greatest impact. By deploying technology solutions quickly to the areas with most need, urgency or benefit has led manufacturers to mitigate many of the avoidable impacts the pandemic is having on their businesses.

But this is an iterative process. Focusing on a single process, area or plant with the greatest opportunity, before extending out to include other processes, areas or plants. The outcome is a more gradual, tactical approach to digital transformation. As digital solutions are gradually deployed further across the enterprise, manufacturers are also moving closer towards their grand digital transformation vision.

This iterative and phased approach to digital transformation has a range of other benefits, including:

  • It is quicker – the time to value can be realised faster than larger more complex digital transformation approaches.
  • It is less risky – lessons can be learnt and changes made in areas where any negative impact is smaller before a phased expansion.
  • It is easier to manage from a resource perspective, with the scope of each tactical implementation being smaller and more manageable.
  • The learning curve is less steep for the teams deploying the technology and the teams using it within the production environment.
  • These tactical deployments are less complex and less prone to unforeseen problems and issues arising.

An unexpected but favourable shift to digital transformation

The pandemic has been challenging for everyone. Those working in manufacturing, retail, hospitality, and or travel, to name a few, have experienced an uneasy 2020 where uncertainty and anxiety remains at the front of everyone’s mind. But the pandemic has also led to opportunity, accelerated through digital transformation initiatives. What was once a long-term strategy that organisations planned to implement over the course of years quickly became deployed in months, or even weeks. The result, or end point, may very well look the same, but how we got there was not as we expected.

By Jason Chester
Director of Global Partner Programs, InfinityQS
November, 2020

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