How a strong digital thread supports a struggling supply chain. Some valuable industry guidance from Anthony Wong, Regional Director, South Pacific, Rockwell Automation.

Being stuck in the past has a cost. Manufacturers utilising legacy systems are hurting themselves with a lack of connectivity that inhibits production and response time. Manufacturers who have yet to modernise are those with the most to gain by upgrading their data management and automation processes. The Harvard Business Review points out that $1Tn is left on the table when companies fail to digitise.

Various elements can exacerbate existing manufacturing and supply chain challenges: global unrest, COVID-19, war, climate change, and economic uncertainty. In 2022, the war in Ukraine impacted the global wheat supply, which trickled down to cause issues with food manufacturers around the world. When the disruption eventually reached consumers, there were product shortages and steep prices for the inventory that was available.

COVID-19 also caused large supply chain disruptions by causing port closures and worker shortages. Inventory tracking became nearly impossible, as there was either no inventory to track or no one on-site to do so. This impact hasn’t disappeared but rather continues downstream in the form of electronic components and automobile shortages. The semiconductor chip shortages were dire enough that Congress had to step in.

Beyond raw material shortages and supply chain disruptions, quality is also a main concern. When quality issues forced facilities manufacturing baby formula to close, the shortages that followed had mothers scouring shelves just to feed their babies. It’s touched other industries as well, with recent salmonella contamination calling the quality of pet food into question and resulting in thousands of pounds of dog food being recalled and pet food prices increasing.

The digital threads of connectivity

New technology and digital transformation allows companies to better collaborate, creating a digitised environment that promotes better data sharing, transparency and communication. Acting as a digital thread, this digital ecosystem connects the shop floor to the floor, then outward to partners and customers. Overall, the level of connectedness increases. Maintaining connectivity between departments and locations guarantees traceability of products and transparency across the company and gives those making decisions a heads-up on potential issues. A single source of truth provides more time to act in the face of market challenges and it also enables stakeholders to evaluate facts and act accordingly in a timely manner.

One way to think about digital connection is the Florida Keys and the intercoastal highway. In this analogy, the Florida Keys are the islands of operations, and the intercoastal highway that runs it way through the islands is connected smart manufacturing solutions. Previously, people could only move from island to island via boat rides. Today, there are 40+ bridges and more than 100 miles of roads over waterways that make for much better and streamlined connectivity. Moreover, manufacturers have historically relied on paper and legacy systems at their various islands of operation. But with a digital thread bridging departments and individuals, information can flow freely.

These smart manufacturing platforms bring together operations and employees, creating structured and streamlined data. The digital thread informs all the systems of a product’s lifecycle and journey, collecting data across research and development to production to delivery to the customer. Once disconnected islands, the ability to share information between systems operates more like today’s modern travel in the Florida Keys—gone are the days of waiting around for the ferry.

Organisations can track critical KPIs throughout production lifestyle and adjust as production progresses by having real-time production data available at the ready. With this information on hand, operators can make decisions faster and more accurately. Better communication between production stages and all parties involved makes manufacturers easier to work with versus those who don’t implement modern practices for transparent communication.

For manufacturers seeking agility, a strong digital thread is their solution. When rocky times hit, businesses must do two things: reduce waste and protect revenue. Modernising systems not only creates opportunities for both objectives, but they also strengthen the supply chain and help companies prepare for what lies ahead.

Perks of a digital thread

There are many benefits of weaving together a strong digital thread: increased productivity, protection against the unpredictable, and boosted profits. When manufacturing, quality management, and supply chain planning systems are in sync, manufacturers can better adapt and respond to supply chain crises when they happen.