Digital innovation and automation can improve visibility across the production line and generate greater efficiency, writes Stephen Keys.

The next industrial revolution is near. IT and software innovation are driving efficiency and automation within manufacturing processes. Specifically, mega-trends such as mobile, social, cloud and big data are transforming processes and technology platforms to enable the agility, scalability and adaptability needed by businesses to remain competitive. These trends represent the transformation towards what can be referred to as the evolution of the “digital enterprise”.

Already we are seeing examples of this digital revolution with the emergence of the ‘smart factory’. In particular, through the phenomenon of the Internet of Things, devices and machinery can now communicate with each other, offering manufacturers greater insight into processes. Manufacturers can monitor the status of a part through the production process and beyond. Moreover, armed with knowledge of a product’s whole lifecycle, manufacturers will be able to gather vast amounts of intelligence about the product, meaning parts can be modified or replaced more rapidly and systems can be monitored more precisely. These are all elements of one common theme, known as Industry 4.0. Manufacturers must become digital to exist in the next industrial revolution.

How manufacturers might accomplish the transition into a digital enterprise will depend upon how well they utilise new technologies that enable intelligent business operations, as well as master the challenges of big data. In an era of digital disruption, it will be imperative for Australian manufacturers to think seriously about how they can remain competitive amid such change, and more importantly, how to capitalise on it.

According to a recent report commissioned by Software AG on the status of Australian organisations as digital enterprises, 31.6% of Australian manufacturers do not consider themselves digital enterprises or are unsure, showing that the industry still has some way to go before becoming truly digital. Moreover, 32% of those organisations believe they are 1-2 years away from becoming a digital enterprise, and 28% are 2-5 years away.

The findings revealed cost as a major barrier to Australian manufacturers becoming digital. However in addition, 43% of manufacturers indicated that legacy infrastructure and process silos were also key barriers, suggesting vast opportunities exist for streamlining processes.

So how can Australian manufacturers become digital enterprises to enhance efficiency and generate greater automation?

A smart factory with agile processes and greater automation cannot be achieved without first obtaining visibility. Through greater visibility, a manufacturer can better understand and manage the production process. By having automatic alerts, for example, manufacturers are made aware of any supply chain disruptions in time to take action. Essentially, transparency across processes means a manufacturer can detect inefficiencies or issues early well before the customer is impacted.

The next evolution of this is Intelligent Adaptive Processes, whereby systems automatically alter processes to ensure the most efficient path is taken. Visibility can be gained through data visualisation, which involves monitoring the big data generated by machines, both in real time and historically. As a result of data visualisation, manufacturers obtain greater insight into which manual processes are causing delays in the production process and supply chain, and thus require automation.

The advantages of using big data

Big data presents a significant opportunity to manufacturers, as well as the entire supply chain – not just by allowing visibility, but also integration, control, and agility, and consequently, enhanced productivity and efficiency. For example, using big data, organisations can automatically connect critical upstream and downstream processes, seamlessly pulling data from disparate silos to show how each distinct part affects the overall business. With these insights, manufacturers can implement new rules and workflows to optimise their supply chain, saving time and money.

Moreover, utilising big data, manufacturers can better analyse millions of orders around the globe to identify those that are at risk, or those involving large quantities and short lead times, for example. In-memory big data allows these issues to be addressed in sub-second response times by determining which transactions can be cost-effectively managed and which cannot be resolved at any cost.

A major benefit of big data for manufacturers is the ability to minimise the costs of factory downtime through using big data analytics for predictive maintenance. This involves monitoring automated machinery for indications of system failure and scheduling maintenance before the machine malfunctions.

Further, identifying when a machine is not performing at its optimal level also means the potential to enhance sustainability and avoid inefficiencies, which lead to profit loss. In this way, big data provides the ability to ensure quality assurance tests are confirmations of high product quality and not used to catch errors or product quality issues. This is especially important for aging manufacturing equipment that is outfitted with new sensors to monitor production.

While extending the lifecycles of equipment is vitally important, it is just as important to meet product quality requirements at the lowest possible cost. Leveraging sensor data and advanced analytics with sub-second analysis enables the continued use of older equipment while meeting product quality and production cost requirements.

At every link of the production process, information is power. Data analysis offers today’s businesses more information than ever. Having greater visibility across processes will make it easier to filter down to the data a business needs. With an understanding of processes and the data needed to make smarter decisions, manufacturers can transform big data into a major opportunity.

Stephen Keys is the Chief Operating Officer, Asia-Pacific and Japan (APJ), Middle East and Turkey (MET), at Software AG.