There is a lot of discussion about the technology around us and how it will revolutionize our businesses and our lives. We hear about the advancement in many areas like the internet of things (IoT), smart manufacturing, digitalization (or digitization) and numerous other evolving technologies. We also hear from technology companies that have different views and different approaches for helping us as manufacturers “not get left behind”, playing on our fears of not remaining competitive. There is some rationale for this and depending upon which segment of business you are in, the effects of new technologies will be different, as will be the timing of your need to embrace them so as not get left behind.
"The tools of continuous improvement have evolved from hand charting to advanced process simulations and large data set analysis"
In manufacturing, we have been connecting devices since the early to middle 1900s, with switches and relays, and with the advent of the process logic controllers (PLCs) in the late 1970s to 1980s, it has done nothing but accelerate since. It was in this same time period that we started digitization with digital signals starting to replace the previous analog signals. So why does it feel different in the last few years? Why the increased pressure to implement cutting edge technologies so as not be “left behind”?
The simple answer is that, in general, technology has advanced enough for us to take the next step in this continuing journey, which began essentially 100 years ago. Computing power is now cheap, fast and well understood. Software has advanced from black and white tennis games to approaching true automated intelligence (AI), maybe even autonomous intelligence in the not too distant future. Our ability to sense what is happening in our manufacturing plants has advanced tremendously and we do not have to solely depend on human observation and monitoring. The speed of that monitoring can be measured in nanoseconds if the process requires it. The storage of the data is now cheap and easy to mine for relationships to determine which inputs drive which outputs. The tools of continuous improvement have evolved from hand charting to online statistical process control and advanced process simulations, from Design of Experiments (DOE) to Monte Carlo, and other tools that do not require an advanced math degree to utilize. These software tools allow the benefit of that advanced mathematics to drive efficiency and solve problems. We can gather, manage and analyze large data sets better than ever before. Most all of these are related to data from and about our manufacturing environment. The technologies and tools culminate in an improved ability to remove waste, variation and cost from our products. They also allow us to manufacture products differently and with improved capabilities to deliver lighter, stronger and more customized products than ever before. Some businesses are reaping profits from using technology for customizing products for an individual. You can even get your face printed on candy if you like.
The better answer of why there is increased pressure to adopt new technologies is that a number of these technologies, along with the software to utilize them, have matured at about the same time, so the leaps we are going to making in the next decade or two are going to rival the advances made during the various industrial revolutions we studied in college. As a result, people are asking “what is the right thing to do with these technologies as manufacturers and business leaders”. There is pressure to make some sort of progress and no one wants to waste time or resources. Therefore, “what progress should we be making” is really the question to ask. Part of this question should be, is it a short term, medium term or long-term effort we need to manage. Also, does it matter where we start? Do we start with internal processes, or with the customer, or with our employees? This largely depends on your business and the answer should be based on your business type and the short, medium or long term issues you are facing. It probably makes less difference where you start, but rests more on the fact you are starting. Whatever starting point you have, it should be deliberate, planned and business focused. It is a business exercise, not a techie exercise and yes, IT and engineering are critical components of this effort. The good news is regardless of where you start, you can always shift focus as it becomes clear that you need to shift time frames or technologies.
It might be exciting to start utilizing AI in some novel way, or maybe just automate an important process to reduce costs, improve quality and to get more real-time data. Maybe as consumer products companies one would, connect better with your customers or give your customers more transparency to the parts of your business that are important to them? One example is the new online standard for tracking packages is total transparency from the shipping companies and instant order status available 24/7. What is the analogy within your business? Is it in customer service, sales, manufacturing, supply chain, etc.?
Whether we recognize it or not, we are all on the “technology” journey as manufacturers. We all have been on it for a long time and it does not matter whether you call it digitalization, smart manufacturing or any other title, it is the same journey and we do not get to opt out. Like everyone else, we at Ingredion Incorporated, a fortune 500 global ingredient solutions provider, with history back to middle 1800’s, are on this same journey.
What may be most exciting of all is to imagine that some of these tools and technologies, that we see as new today, will be as innocuous to the next generation as word processing and spreadsheets are to us now. The future is bright indeed!