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From Automation to Digitalisation and Beyond

There’s a common saying that ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’. After more than two decades of helping manufacturing businesses navigate the pitfalls of modernisation, I can’t help but agree with this sentiment.

When I first joined Rockwell Automation in 1997, the focus for many customers was on the shift from manual to automated systems. Now, as we enter the 2020s, the agenda has shifted towards digitalisation and I’m reminded of those similar discussions I was having many years ago.

As I listen to what my customers have to say – the vision they have for their manufacturing and the challenges that stand in the way – this transition becomes more apparent. No longer is the substance of discussions on the more tangible aspects of production, such as inventory management, but now lie in the virtual; software capabilities, data analytics and visualisation of information.

We’re fortunate here in the Middle East as our companies have typically been early adopters of new technologies. The leaders I talk to therefore approach the topic of transformation with maturity and confidence. The role I try to play is to help them better understand the journey that lies ahead. Together, we identify opportunities to tie digital solutions into business successes, address the challenges that inevitably come with change and apply the most practical solutions to enhance their operations.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the process I use to help my customers shape their digitalisation vision and lay the pathway to modernise their manufacturing operations.

Identifying the Opportunity

The success of a digitisation initiative can often begin with a simple question: ‘why?’ Being able to articulate why it’s desirable to add smarter capabilities helps to elevate the discussion from lower-level concerns such as where the sensors will be placed and what the dashboards will look like, to higher-level business objectives such as improving operator decision-making, helping executives with forecasting or increasing employee experience and engagement. From a business standpoint, this higher-level thinking is crucial because it directly affects the bottom line.

Once the organisation understands why it should digitalise, it opens up the conversation to which objectives take priority, both in the immediate and longer term. For context, we conducted a study in late 2019 to understand the key reasons executives were investing in digital transformation. Within EMEA, improving IT security (74%), improving safety (66%) and improving quality (63%) were the key targets for the next three years, while driving innovation (47%) and guiding forward decision making (43%) were longer term goals. Having these strategic-level discussions helps to define which objectives are to be given priority.

Braced for the Challenges

Once the objectives are clarified, we need to look at the challenges. In speaking with executives we often find that, regardless of industry sector or size, the shift from well-established (and often profitable) processes is never an easy process. Every business is faced with similar hurdles to make a smooth transition without the risk of disrupting existing operations or revenue streams.

There are some common questions that arise in our discussions with customers. Talking through them helps to identify areas where they need our support:

  • How do I prioritise which areas of production to replace?

Making wholesale change to production processes is seldom the most prudent approach and can run into unanticipated cost barriers, as well as cultural issues. Identifying where change is most needed and focusing on incremental improvements typically eases the change process. 

  • How can I meet the new connectivity needs on a consistent basis?

Digital processes require high bandwidth and robust connectivity. Reliability and security cannot be sacrificed in the pursuit of performance, so connectivity is a necessary foundation.

  • How can I make sure my new processes meet necessary levels of compliance and data security?

Not every business can embrace the public cloud. Depending on region or sector, where may be strict rules that must be factored into any transformation strategy from the very beginning. Any potential solutions must therefore align with regulatory and risk frameworks before they can be considered for implementation.

  • How do I manage issues around connecting IT and OT systems?

In many manufacturing businesses, responsibilities for managing operational (OT) and information (IT) technologies lie with different teams. What were once disparate systems now must work in unison. Leaders must plan on bridging this gap from technological, operational and cultural perspectives to avoid creating process or safety risks.

Laying the Path to Digital

The final piece of the puzzle relates to how we can overcome these digitalisation hurdles to arrive at our objectives. I’ve worked with executives in various sectors, including oil & gas, pharmaceuticals and food production, and the advice I tend to offer in this regard is applicable to all. To maximise the chances that your digital strategy will meet its objectives, I recommend the following:

  • Get executive buy-in. Any digitalisation project needs to be given strategic priority. This can only happen if C-level is involved from the beginning. With the support of key executives and stakeholders, issues around resource and funding can be properly addressed, allowing the project to drive forward.
  • Take control of data. Data security is front of mind for every organisation. Our study showed that 74% of executives listed it as top of their list of priorities. This isn’t without good reason – exposure to breaches can impact business outcomes, so it’s important to establish the security credentials of any cloud solutions in the design stage. For example, where we’ve worked with customers that are concerned about holding sensitive information in the public cloud, we’ve helped implement on-premises cloud solutions so they can gain cloud-like capabilities while retaining control of their servers.
  • Think about user experience. Digital offers a host of opportunities to improve how employees interact with manufacturing processes and overcome any concerns around change. This is where making provision for staff training and onboarding will yield significant benefits. We work with our customers to implement solutions such as blended reality and digital twins to help engage staff and increase proficiency in drawing benefits. Such technologies, once operational, can make significant improvements in product quality, development and occupational safety.
  • Build your network. Partnerships are crucial in the digital manufacturing world. With so many aspects involved in transformation, it’s unlikely that any one company contains all the necessary solutions and competences. Seeking the support of external partners can therefore help in broadening your own knowledge base. That’s why we’ve built a strong network of expert partners with local knowledge that we can work with to deliver on specific requirements for our customers.

Towards digitalisation

When it comes to digital transformation, the ‘what’ comes at the end. Too many times, businesses will tackle digital transformation from the wrong end, asking how they can implement IoT or machine learning before they’ve gone through the process of determining what they’re trying to achieve and what provisions they’re making for dealing with any issues.

The specific solutions an organisation needs to implement will be defined by its intended journey. Digital transformation is not a commodity – there’s no blueprint that will work for every company, and so any approach needs to be adapted to each company’s reality. At Rockwell, our approach has always been to listen to customers and really understand their needs. Only by listening can we really help them take the first steps towards making digital the right approach for their business.


Safwat Hakam
Safwat Hakam
Country Sales Director for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Rockwell Automation
Safwat Hakam
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