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How Do You Reap the Rewards from Three ‘Shifts’ in Digital Manufacturing?

Smart manufacturing – using Internet-connected machinery to monitor and enhance production processes – has become significant in the industry’s drive towards modernisation. Across segments and categories, companies are pursuing efficiency gains from applying automation and analytics to conventionally manual processes.

While the future of manufacturing is here, it’s not evenly distributed. It’s little surprise that major manufacturers, holding large technology and R&D budgets, have been the frontrunners in smart process adoption.

For smaller manufacturers, digitisation can seem overwhelming. They are under similar pressures to their larger peers – reduce production costs, innovate product development – but are constrained by the implications of ripping out and replacing their pre-existing operations with digital solutions. They’re understandably cautious over taking on unappreciated risk, yet know intuitively that taking a ‘maybe tomorrow’ approach leaves them open to disruption.

And they often face another time pressure: smaller operations are usually a component of a larger ‘digital thread’ – i.e. an end-to-end digital supply chain – and so are faced with expectations from larger operators to adapt to their digital operations and align with their systems.

Ignoring the digital imperative is no longer an option; it’s time to act. Before commencing on your transformation journey, take the time to understand the three major shifts that are shaping the industry’s future.


Mike Loughran
Mike Loughran
Chief Technology Officer UK & Ireland, Rockwell Automation
Mike has a passion for working with companies to help them unlock the benefits of digital manufacturing, and is the Connected Enterprise ambassador. Throughout his career, he has worked with both large and small manufacturing companies to advise and help set their automation strategy in order to help them achieve their productivity and sustainability goals through smarter use of technology.

Shift #1 – The Consumer Shift

Modern manufacturing needs to be responsive to the end user. Digital operations provide a depth of analytic capabilities that provide an opportunity to better understand the market – and specifically, fast-changing consumer trends – and to adapt all aspects of your supply chain to meet these emerging needs. Using data from manufacturing processes alongside data from the end consumer can help to shape and direct production decisions.

An example of this is greater consumer demand for ‘sustainable’ produce. It’s encouraged manufacturers to adapt everything from their selection of suppliers through to packaging and branding in order to tell the story that the market wants to hear.

It’s important to understand such cultural shifts and be able to operate within a ‘B2B2C’ business model, where each component manufacturer is part of a bigger product story – and can benefit from end-user insights in a way that not previously possible.

Shift #2 – The Technological Shift

Digitisation is also bringing changes in technology, opening up innovation opportunities for manufacturers of varying sizes and within a range of verticals.

At the centre of this transformation is cloud computing, which offers the ability to consume software and infrastructure ‘as-a-service’, removing traditional cost barriers. It allows even smaller companies to better integrate with partners, access leading-edge services and scale operations depending on needs.

This is evident in sectors where larger manufacturers have followed smaller upstarts into high-growth categories. An example is the craft brewing trend, where large brewery plants have been able to test craft or seasonal variants without cannibalising their core production lines.

The benefits of agile and adaptive IT infrastructure will become even more apparent as you seek to introduce new tech capabilities, such as AR and remote plant management, in order to realise new cost and efficiency gains.

Shift #3 – The Generational Shift

An equally important part of the current sectoral transformation is the shift taking place at a generational level.

Manufacturing is a highly specialised industry, and over the last 20 to 30 years, operators have needed to develop expert skills to manage production. Now, at the advent of the digital age, we’re seeing a need for new skill sets such as data science and UI design, to enhance the value of systems. This requires the building of diverse in-house digital capabilities.

While digital expertise is integral to the sector’s future, the need for more ‘traditional’ manufacturing skills is as strong as ever. Digitising and automating your processes requires an intricate understanding of what each process is designed to achieve. Without knowing why the process is required, it’s impossible for you to effectively transform it into process logic. There’s a growing risk of losing the operating skills that have guided past production (e.g. due to retirement), and so it’s essential that you have a plan for passing knowledge down to the new generation.

Getting Smart

Look at your current operations and think carefully about how these shifts apply. Using them to help navigate your own journey will help focus your efforts. Ultimately, you should seek to use digital to tackle the problems specific to your market, rather than implementing ‘digital for digital’s sake.’

We recommend taking an open-minded approach. See change as a non-negotiable and invest time into research to gain an understanding of how digital can enhance (rather than replace) existing operations and bring benefits to your end customers.

Rockwell Automation can help businesses like yours to navigate the necessities of funding and research, accelerate time-to-insight and start the process of reshaping your digital thread to make sure that smart manufacturing serves the purposes your company requires.

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