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11 Lessons in Digital Transformation

The following examples offer some framework in setting the right goals, proper planning, and how to realize those goals with greater speed and less pain.

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It’s probably no surprise that 2020 has been a big year for digital transformation (DX). Preceding years primed the new decade for big DX shifts even before COVID-19 hit, and the pandemic has clearly accelerated many DX initiatives.

However, even with some groundwork in place, it can be challenging to know where to begin with DX or what direction to go. The following examples of DX projects offer some framework to a.) make the right goals for a DX initiative, or, b.) to plan the path forward, and c.) get to the end of that path a little faster.

1. Implement new software and innovate to innovate more.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries set a lofty goal to grow by 70 percent across the next decade. Part of the company’s plans to do so involved sharing innovations quickly across business units. However, introducing new innovations can be expensive. Furthermore, Kawasaki’s individual units already used their own processes to manage supply chains and day-to-day operations, which made implementation of new innovations more complex. To maximize cross-unit innovation, the company took on new product lifecycle management (PLM) software, which cut the costs to implement other new innovations by 70 percent.

2. Implement better software.

Precast concrete manufacturer Jensen Precast began saving 20+ hours per month simply by adopting a new asset management program for the company’s large inventory of vehicles, machines, furniture, and IT equipment. Jensen used software tools like spreadsheets before, so the move to digital management wasn’t new in itself. The upgrade to more well-suited software simply eliminated cumbersome steps that the work processes previously required.

3. Gather more data.

Harley-Davidson once struggled with a fixed 21-day production cycle for many of the company’s new orders. Shortening this process was largely a matter of gathering more data on what happened across those 21 days of effort. By deploying new sensors to study their existing machinery, Harley-Davidson trimmed this production cycle down to six hours. The company saved around $200M as part of this project, chiefly thanks to amassing more data than they’d been able to consider before.

4. Do something with the data.

Gathering more data was also a key step for a global plastics company. In this case, the solution specifically involved doing something new with the data as well. This plastics company used their data to create “an operational historian,” a time-series structured database for every input being gathered. This initiative is now projecting a cost reduction of 15 percent per production line each year, not to mention a $20M improvement in annual earnings.

5. Improve interoperability by connecting things.

An Ohio plant manufacturing Jeep bodyshells became one of the most economical automotive plants in the U.S. by addressing an issue of interoperability. This plant employs over 60,000 devices, from many different vendors, for back-end monitoring. Jeep brought in an integration partner to manage the data produced by so many unique devices. Thanks to the partner’s “integrated gateways, sensors, and applications,” Jeep developed “a fully digitalized lifecycle management platform that controls and monitors the entire value chain in real-time.” One of the most valuable results of this system is Jeep’s ability to produce many different bodyshells on the same production line.

6. Supplement human effort with AI.

Conversations about digital transformation often center on connecting things, but it’s also important to consider the connection between those things and the workers using them. One large automotive component supplier uses a combination of human experience and algorithmically-calculated optimization as workers switch from machine to machine. Where workers had to determine switching patterns themselves in the past, juggling multiple tasks and priorities, artificial intelligence now communicates with them via smart watches or floor-mounted LEDs to indicate when switching positions could optimize the work on a production line.

7. Help transform your work force.

Individual workers can also undergo digital transformation. Jeff Heath of Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies (ITAMCO) is a prime example. Heath began his manufacturing career grinding metal parts in the finishing room of a foundry. Driven mostly by his own curiosity, Heath then took a handful of two-to-three-day courses, taught himself how to build computer-aided design (CAD) models, learned CNC machining from a downloadable simulator, and moved through various positions with new on-the-job training. Heath’s aptitude and interests caught his employer’s attention. Between the company’s support and Heath’s own internal motivation, Heath eventually moved into a position as a manufacturing engineer, despite having never taken a college course related to digital manufacturing.

8. Use wearables.

The Swiss company Planzer has undertaken a logistics project to “untether workers from fixed workstations.” Plazner is responsible for various cargo transport processes, including quickly unloading cargo at 13 rail centers as trains arrive and prepare for a rapid departure. The work doesn’t end with the unloading, either, since Plazner then needs to pick and pack shipments for the next stage of transportation. To speed up their time-sensitive processes, the company replaced handheld barcode / QR scanners with a wearable scanner. The results? Workers who formerly had to leave their forklifts to scan each cargo shipment can now scan hands-free from inside their vehicles.

9. Explore remote work for dangerous tasks.

Studies indicate that human error causes more than 75 percent of accidents in the shipping industry. A leader at Kongsberg Maritime says the explanation for workers’ errors is simple: “They are tired.” To combat this, shipping companies and their partners are now enabling safer, more remote operations for fatiguing tasks like crane operation. Where operating a dock crane used to entail a four-to-five hour shift from a largely exposed cockpit, crane operators can now work in controlled, remote environments, taking breaks and experiencing less personal dangers at every stage of their work so that human error is less likely to enter the picture.

10. Use digital modeling to prepare for the future.

Manufacturing giant P&G once tasked each of their individual facilities with disaster decision-making. The result of this model was that when a disaster occurred, “there was no central authority handing out orders or prioritizing with the entire business in mind.” A simple weather delay in one part of the world, for instance, could cause an unanticipated manufacturing delay in another. To disaster-proof their supply chain, P&G introduced a centralized planning system. The company’s new approach digitally modeled the entire supply chain—including bills of materials —so that performance teams could “run scenarios to try to avoid disruption. P&G’s Associate Director of Planning described the results this way: “’We take what used to be days if not weeks’ worth of effort and we can get that work done in hours and sometimes minutes.’”

11. Consider a temporary solution for a big-picture problem.

Digital transformation often comes with the idea of permanent change via fixed infrastructure, big new factories of the future, or other immutable investments. This isn’t always the best way to proceed. One popular restaurant chain approached WISER Systems looking for a better understanding of some of their service processes. They planned to study each location briefly, so it didn’t make sense to install permanent equipment in each location. WISER enabled this by providing real-time location data with less than a backpack’s worth of wireless equipment—all which could be deployed or removed in only a few minutes per location. This restaurant’s time and motion study is ongoing, but a conservative estimate shows that they only need to save five seconds per meal to save more than $5M per year in worker wages.

Digital initiatives often fail, even when following sage advice and best practices. Perhaps this illustrates the reality Thomas Edison expressed with his quote (apocryphal or not) about 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. Sometimes it takes experiential effort to find what works and what doesn’t.

Stephen Taylor is the Director of Communications at WISER Systems, Inc.

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