The Top 5 Digital Transformation Tools Manufacturers Are Leveraging

You’ve been hearing and reading a lot about digital technology, but there are so many different areas, where should you allocate your resources first to generate the highest return? Here are the top 5 tools you should already be adopting, or at least, testing. If you’re not, then you’re already behind your competition.

1. The Internet of Things. IoT devices are now enabling manufacturers to track equipment and attain data and valuable insight like never before. According to a report by Zebra Technologies, 64% of manufacturers believe that by 2022, their factories will be fully connected with the latest technologies powering IoT. Some of the most common things to be used to build out these smart factories include radio frequency identification (RFID) tools, wearables and small devices that can track equipment performance.

IoT devices are relatively inexpensive and easy to adopt through pilot programs that are highly targeted in areas where they can pay for themselves. Jeff Shmitz, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Zebra, said the industrial Internet of Things “has crossed the chasm, and savvy manufacturers are investing aggressively in technologies that will create a smarter, more connected plant floor to achieve greater operational visibility and enhance quality.”

2. Robotics and automation. The easiest way to test the waters of robotics is look for ways where small collaborative robots could fit into your production line and improve efficiency. These robots are falling in price to as little as $30,000 and supplement and enhance human labor. Examples include robotic “pick and place” arms that can automatically install parts or do tedious repetitive tasks. By replacing even a portion of tasks, it can enable manufacturers to reserve humans for more high-value activities.

“Breakthrough insights in these specific areas can have a major impact on business performance and potentially delivery an impressive return on a company’s analytics investment.”

“It’s not meant to replace human labor, but you can get greater throughput with the same size workforce,” John Santagate, an analyst with IDC Manufacturing Insights, said.

3. Analytics. Deloitte said that analytics can be targeted at improving product development, along with optimizing supply chain, managing sales and marketing spend, reducing warranty spend and improving overall financial management. Analytics can offer manufacturers a competitive advantage, improved connection between decision-making and ROI, and it enables them to manage resources more effectively. Manufacturers can combine inexpensive sensors with application-specific SaaS programs to gather more actionable data.

“Breakthrough insights in these specific areas can have a major impact on business performance and potentially delivery an impressive return on a company’s analytics investment,” Deloitte said.

4. Machine learning and artificial intelligence. While IoT can gather data and analytics, AI and machine learning can help process it to make actionable recommendations or even guide automated processes. AI can be complex for many manufacturers to adopt, but it is becoming more accessible. “Smart” devices not only can track data, but also can monitor equipment and processes to draw conclusions and even make recommendations.

Jerry Overton, data scientists and technologist at DXC’s Analytics group, said one example of AI in action is the “digital twin.” This is created by using sensors to monitor the manufacturing process then building digital simulations. These simulations can allow the company to inexpensively and safely explore new technologies. “What a company learns in simulation can be used to improve manufacturing in the real world,” Overton said.

5. Process and direction. Finally, manufacturers that truly want to transform into digital organizations need more than just technology. Many manufacturers have a gap in leadership between their digital ambitions and applications and need a figurehead to guide digitization efforts and processes.

CDOs are typically responsible for ensuring the organization is taking the rights steps, looking at the right data, implementing effective technologies, and guiding the application to business decisions. Chris Moody, Industry Analyst at GE Digital, said while there can be a temptation to place this role in IT, digital leaders must report directly to the CEO and focus more on data. Moody said their main role is to ensure data is valid, robust, reliable and suitable for an informed decision-making process.

“Without this position, organizations are missing the key link to undergoing a digital transformation…they need to strike a balance between the technology and business side of the company,” Moody said.

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Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.

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