The Surprising Keys to Manufacturing Digital Transformation

From IT and HR to finance and leadership, the keys to successful digital transformation lie in a cross-functional approach

Mike Lashbrook, JR Automation, Hitachi - 2023 Rethink
Mike Lashbrook discusses digital transformation and data on the mainstage at the 2023 Manufacturing Leadership Council’s Rethink Summit, Marco island, Florida. Photo by David Bohrer / National Assoc. of Manufacturers

Few would argue that automation and digital transformation (DT) are not critical to the future of industrial automation. According to Gartner, 80% of manufacturing CEOs are increasing investments in digital technologies — led by artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and data and analytics — to counter economic pressures and to drive growth and profitability. Meanwhile, a 2023 MLC survey of manufacturing leaders indicates that 85% see an increase or no change to their companies’ Manufacturing 4.0 investment despite economic concerns.

And yet Gartner reports only 8% of industrial organizations say their DT initiatives are successful.

Eight percent?

It is a dismal number. Why so few?

It is tempting to pin the blame on technology snags. But technology is rarely the issue. Most organizations nowadays are engineering-led. They tend to jump on new technology right away. It’s cool and fun, and the solutions typically are readily available in the market.

Digital transformation initiatives in manufacturing fail because of organizational readiness. Or more specifically, the lack thereof.

To be clear, both organizational readiness and technical readiness are critical. But companies are generally better off when it comes to technical readiness due to the aforementioned reasons, and because they have a history of technology investments and the requisite skilled workers. With that as a backdrop, we advise industrial manufacturers to adhere to the following best practices when implementing digital transformation initiatives, with a particular emphasis on managing various organizational readiness issues, which span from the cultural to the financial.

Digital transformations should be cross-functional — but led by manufacturing operations

Digital transformation teams should be cross-functional, with representation from manufacturing, engineering, supply chain, and material operations. But cross-functional DT teams should be led by manufacturing operations. Why? Because manufacturing ops understands the floor — specifically, the problems on the floor and how to drive value.

IT is partner #1

Manufacturing operations and IT have to work hand-in-hand, with IT responsible for reliability, security and data — the latter of which is obviously the fuel for data-driven manufacturing. There are several best-practices specifically when it comes to the data.

  • Data must be centralized so that the entire organization is working off of one source of truth.
  • Data should be collected according to the problem you are trying to solve. Data isn’t free, so you do not need to collect it all. Start with the problem on the manufacturing floor, and let that dictate the data you collect.
  • Data should be driven down to the appropriate people to make the appropriate decisions. Think through any data user — operator, team leader, quality leader, maintenance leader — and their standardized work. Then design your system to get the correct data in their hands for their jobs. (We will come back to some of the implications of getting this wrong.)

Don’t forget HR

HR support is critical in a few regards. First, HR can lead on the critical task of bridging the gap between newer, younger employees and older employees. Our workforce is transitioning and changing, and we are getting many new employees who have a great understanding of the technology and who bring new ways of thinking. At the same time, we have our older workers – I often refer to them as our “oak trees.” They really know how the floor runs and how it operates. Companies need both, and both can learn and benefit from each other.

HR’s other critical role is bringing team leaders and operators on the floor along on the journey. People will have concerns with any DT initiative. Will I get left behind? Is this going to replace me? Is Big Brother watching me? From day one, companies need to engage the floor — operators, team leaders, quality operators, maintenance operators — and make sure that they understand why the company is bringing technology in, the purpose, and how it is ultimately going to make their lives better and their jobs easier.

Be realistic about finances

Digital transformations are often under-capitalized. Ongoing costs are overlooked. Companies need to carefully account for expenses like ongoing maintenance costs, integration work, data collection and potential downtime. Many of these add-on costs aren’t properly captured in the budgeting process and later bite companies during implementation.

Leadership must protect the culture and drive decentralized data-driven decision-making

Leaders must embrace the transformation and ensure that digitization doesn’t degrade or destroy company culture.

First, leaders should never allow “data hoarding” at the top of the company, falling into the trap of thinking, Now I can solve all of these problems myself. Empower the right people with the right data to do their jobs. Problem-solving and continuous improvement should advance as long as data is being drive down to the right level of the organization.

Second, leaders must bring the operator along on the journey so they understand why the organization is making changes. This is similar to HR’s role mentioned above, but the questions that leaders answer are different. Why a wearable? How are these changes going to make me more effective and my job better? Leaders must not only manage the change — they have to inspire the workforce in the process.

Ultimately, company leaders should ask themselves, How do I make sure that we stay true to the philosophies that we learned from the Toyota Way — Kaizen and Genchi and Genbutsu … teamwork, respect and challenge? Culturally, nothing really has to change in the digitized world. The key is staying true to the philosophy of operator and team leader first, while driving data-driven decision-making throughout the organization.


About J.R. Automation
JR Automation, a Hitachi Group Company, partners with industrial manufacturers all over the world to design, build, and integrate advanced automation solutions — from assembly automation, dispensing, and vision systems to process design, controls engineering, and software integrations. We have built custom technology solutions for every application, process and industry, and helped ensure our customers were organizationally ready for the change.

About the Author:
Mike Lashbrook is Vice President Digital Solutions and Senior Vice President, M&A Connected Industry, JR Automation, a Hitachi Group Company.



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