Smarter manufacturing: what are the challenges?

Issue 9 2020 Logistics (Industry)

The manufacturing industry is on the cusp of a new digital-first era. Technology is changing everything from design to production. It’s no surprise then that digital transformation has become top of the agenda for those working in the sector. And for good reason.

According to recent research, factory digitalisation could provide digitally savvy companies with 38 percent higher revenue growth than those that have not yet digitalised their business. The promise of increased employee productivity, faster time to market and more efficient operations is becoming too great to ignore.

Ronald Ravel.

However, the road to a digital-first workforce isn’t an easy one, especially for manufacturing organisations who have traditionally relied on legacy systems and processes. Though digital transformation efforts are underway for some manufacturers, many obstacles remain a concern. The top barriers range from insufficient budgets and cybersecurity concerns to legacy systems and the adoption of new technologies.

Despite these concerns, manufacturers need to evolve with today’s increasingly competitive landscape in which consumers are demanding goods at a faster rate and of higher quality. Tackling the hurdles to digital transformation has never been more important. So, how can manufacturers overcome these challenges and successfully transform their business into a smarter organisation?

No quick payback

Digital transformation obviously doesn’t come without extra investment. It’s therefore unsurprising that a common roadblock on a manufacturer’s digital transformation journey is a lack of funds. For manufacturing businesses that are lucky enough to receive greater IT budgets, much of the attention is placed on the adoption of AI, machine learning and automation. However, while collaboration between workers and machines is a key area of development for manufacturing, it’s about change taking place at all levels – right down to the technologies that employees are using on a day-to-day basis.

Hardware remains a key part of any manufacturing business’ IT strategy. As manufacturing operations management becomes increasingly digital, production staff and non-factory floor teams alike need devices that can keep up with the demands of the modern manufacturing IT ecosystem. However, it’s a no-brainer that completely overhauling an employee device strategy with new devices is an expensive and time-intensive process. Not to mention managing the day-to-day device lifecycle management, which adds significant complexity.

To overcome this, many manufacturing businesses are turning to other purchasing options, such as PC-as-a-Service (PCaaS). PCaaS, which can encompass everything from mobile devices to desktop PCs, is an opex (operational expenditure) subscription-based model that often includes a full spectrum of services, from purchasing and configuring to managing, refreshing and retiring devices. This means a business pays a monthly rate for the use of a vendor’s devices and additional services, rather than buying hardware outright (capex). Organisations can benefit from updated technology, while being able to amortise device costs over time, as well as scaling up and down depending on the need.

Overcoming key security challenges

The PCaaS model also provides a potential solution to another common barrier to digital transformation in manufacturing: security. PCaaS can encompass data backup, recovery and remote wiping, giving a manufacturer the peace of mind that if the device is stolen, damaged or suffers a cyberattack, valuable corporate data can be either wiped or recovered.

According to a recent survey, 50% of manufacturers have experienced data breaches in the past year. For manufacturing organisations, intellectual property (IP) is one of their most valuable assets. With many having vast amounts of data regarding products, patents, designs, suppliers and customers, data loss prevention is a primary worry for this sector.

Manufacturers must keep up with the growing sophistication of cybercriminals and not let the fear of this challenge hold the industry back. But this is no easy task. As with any IT project, it’s fundamental that manufacturing businesses consider security from day zero and equip themselves with the right protective technologies. Devices which include advanced biometric features and hardware-based credential storage capabilities provide an active first line of defence. Other security measures such as zero-client solutions go even further and help nullify data-related threats by withdrawing sensitive data from the device itself. With information stored away on a central, cloud-based system, these solutions protect against unsolicited access to information if a device is lost or stolen.

Keeping up with innovation

Manufacturing is adopting new technologies such as AR (augmented reality), 5G and IoT at a growing rate, which have been the catalyst for business-wide digital transformation efforts. For example, AR has emerged as a powerful new tool to bridge the gap between the digital and real worlds for assemblers, operators, and technicians. However, reliance on legacy systems is posing a significant bottleneck for many manufacturers looking to build a digital-first business.

The problem is that these new technologies create vast amounts of data. Many manufacturers are struggling to scale their IT capabilities to process this data, as well as use it efficiently to improve and automate decisions and optimise output.

So, what’s the answer for those who don’t have the resources to simply ‘rip and replace’ infrastructure and how can the value of data be untapped? Edge computing solutions enable manufacturers to gather, analyse and redistribute vast data sets and assist in turning them into actionable insights.

The pressure to keep up with innovation and evolving market demands is not new for manufacturers. Digital transformation will undoubtedly remain a major part of business conversations in the manufacturing industry for years to come. With 90% of industrial company leaders believing digitalisation offers more opportunities than risks, the benefits for those embracing digital transformation are clear: they’ll just need to be bold and make the transformative move.

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