QMT Features: October 2017
Bridging the industrial revolutions
Michael Lyle, CEO of InfinityQA, says that the key to bridging the gap between the physical and digital is unlocking the manufacturing quality data you already own

The concept of ‘digital transformation’ is becoming increasingly well-worn amongst industry players. Driven by the emergence of progressive technologies such as cloud computing, organisations are applying digital transformation strategies to streamline processes, drive greater efficiencies, improve and accelerate decision-making, and expand business reach.

According to the latest research from Gartner, 42% of CEOs have begun to digitally transform their businesses and all evidence suggests this figure will grow in the years to come. While some have taken to digital transformation like a duck to water, others have been slower to adopt—like the manufacturing sector.

For centuries, manufacturing has been at the forefront of mankind’s biggest industrial transformations: the use of water and steam power to mechanise production, the use of electric power to create mass production, and the use of electronics and information technology to automate. Today, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new transformation: Industry 4.0.

In its simplest form, Industry 4.0, or ‘4IR,’ is the introduction of smart factories with machines that are connected to the internet and are part of a system that can visualise the entire production chain. Moreover, entities throughout the system can make their own decisions based on data analytics and artificial intelligence.

In practice, the case for the manufacturing industry embracing Industry 4.0 is obvious – greater scalability, efficiency, communication, and access to data, and enhanced security. But despite these widely understood benefits, many in the manufacturing world appear reluctant. Recently, a poll by the EEF, the Manufacturers’ Organisation, revealed that 42% of organisations have a ‘good understanding’ of what Industry 4.0 is. The challenge, however, is trying to incorporate this into a future strategy—from those surveyed, only 11% stated they were in a position to support the next industrial revolution. Given our reliance on technology, how can such a formative industry be so apparently behind?

It might seem obvious, but the simple answer lies in the fact that a lot of the practices and approaches employed by manufacturers are still built on the processes and procedures employed in Industry 3.0 and, to a lesser extent, Industry 2.0. Arguably, one of the biggest areas in which we can see this demonstrated is within how a manufacturer manages its quality management processes.

When people typically think of managing quality, it conjures up images of statistical process control charts used to study how a process changes over time—the main driver for this is to use the insights from the data to reduce recalls and ensure compliance standards are met. In simple terms, it could be suggested that this is no more than a tick-box exercise, and this is where the parallels to those legacy practices can be seen.

For many manufacturers, the tools of the trade for managing and monitoring quality control are a pencil and a clipboard. If there is a failure in your ‘technology,’ it can often be rectified with a pencil-sharpener. Information is noted onto worksheets, and then gathered together across multiple sites and plants. The information is then lumped into a spreadsheet to sit and gather dust in a filing cabinet, or at best siloed in databases or file servers across the organisation.

Stopping here misses the greatest benefit of the data—if used effectively, it will provide strategic operational insights to help drive continuous transformation in quality, processes, and overall operations. The reality is that most manufacturers, locked into legacy practices, can’t imagine that this same information could be the key to unlocking dramatic improvements in yield, compliance, and resource utilisation. But through the capabilities of cloud computing, it’s possible.

Manufacturers can achieve an aggregated, end-to-end view of production sites across the entire enterprise and create a foundation for digital transformation to Industry 4.0. Benefiting from the resulting insights, firms are able to develop a continuous cycle of improvement programme that gives them an edge on the competition. They can enact an ‘excellence loop,’ which consists of three interconnected parts:

Enterprise Visibility: When all quality-related data is unified from all sources into a standardised and centralised database, it’s possible to visualise more than the quality of a single production line. The outcome is real-time visibility of the entire enterprise, from end to end—including suppliers, incoming inspection, raw materials, in-process checks from shop floor operators and the quality lab, process data, packaging, and finished products.

Operational Insight: With visibility of the entire operation, useful and actionable insight is generated about the enterprise’s processes, suppliers, and manufacturing operations. Improved analytics and reporting help to apply best practices consistently across all plants, lines, processes, and products in a prioritised manner.
Global Transformation: Finally, the resulting insights can be applied to streamline, optimise, and transform processes and operations across the enterprise, elevating product quality, improving efficiency, and creating exponential cost savings.
This excellence loop demonstrates the true capabilities and scalability that can be gathered from embracing digital transformation, enabling an organisation to gain maximum efficiencies from quality data.

Ultimately, the pace and speed at which technology is moving and enabling us to better our business offerings means firms can no longer afford to be resistant to change. For manufacturers particularly, the reliance on those legacy practices often associated with the second and third industrial revolutions means critical sources of information are being ignored, which is debilitating their ability to keep pace with competitors. By making use of these data streams, you can effectively bridge the gap, ensuring that as the next industrial revolution starts to gather pace, you are able to sit at the forefront of it.
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