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Who should be your digital-transformation champion?

April 9, 2019

It is critical to put your Industry 4.0 strategy in the right hands.

We often talk about “silos” in manufacturing, referring to process and test data trapped on the production line that could otherwise be used to drive improvements in quality and yield. But as we all grapple with this thing called Industry 4.0, the silos that often cause the most problems are the ones that exist between people, not machines.

First, you have the executives who are most concerned about the broad production trends over weeks, months and fiscal quarters. They have to authorize any Industry 4.0 investment.

Then you have quality and process engineers focused on trends and patterns that can account for changes in yield. They review daily reports that highlight scrap and rework rates to see if trends are positive, negative or stationary.

And then there is the plant’s IT department, tasked with everything that involves a computer, a company smartphone or even the access system for the plant’s physical security.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers released two reports at last September’s International Manufacturing Technology Show that put the focus on people—not technology—as the stumbling block to Industry 4.0 implementation. It came down to lack of leadership in the corner office and lack of investment to make sure the necessary skills are in place across departments.

Cincinnati Test Systems' Jeff McBee

A month before that, McKinsley & Co. put out a report about “How digital manufacturing can escape ‘pilot purgatory’” which talked about the need for executives to get the whole organization on the same page with any Industry 4.0 initiative and not “treat it as an isolated IT implementation effort.” Skills-building figured highly in this report, too.

Of course, we don’t need thinktanks to tell us where the problems are. I work with many small to mid-sized manufacturers that are only now starting to grapple with Industry 4.0 on their plant floors. Many are suppliers to larger OEMs, such as automakers. Their customers are squeezing them to provide more traceability on their products, to deliver greater quality assurance and faster and more reliable root-cause analysis and resolution when quality issues do arise.

But again, the growing acceptance that “we need to do something” continues to run up against the wall of “how do we take the first step” and “who will drive it?”

Industry 4.0 covers a lot of territory, but let’s focus on that production-data side of it—making more effective use of process and test data from the line to provide greater traceability, improve quality, drive higher first-time yields and to support predictive equipment maintenance.

The quality and process engineers, since they play a front-line role with operators and other staff on the plant floor, would seem like the logical choice to make this kind of initiative succeed and would be the first to see the ROI. But…they are often too busy stomping brushfires to give it due consideration.

Instead, we often see this dumped on an organization’s IT department. The IT guys find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, expected to deliver results for management and get the rest of the organization to play ball. But in most cases, they simply lack sufficient knowledge of their plant’s manufacturing processes and the crucial role that process data from the line has to play in Industry 4.0 quality gains.

This creates an unclosed loop between IT, management and engineering.

We recently sat in on an internal meeting with one client where, sure enough, it was the IT department trying to champion what we were selling to an audience of engineers. At one point, a supervising engineer learned over and asked, “Who are these guys?” When told it was the IT department, he said, rather dismissively, “OK, that makes sense.”

We see these silos between departments within an organization all the time, hardened by a combination of ego, turf guarding and the comfort of the status quo. At other clients, the management team is (mostly) on the same page and trying to figure out who will spearhead the Industry 4.0 initiative, without yet having a clear idea of what form that initiative will take.

For small to mid-sized manufacturers in this boat, here are some questions to consider:

Where is our need for Industry 4.0 adoption coming from? For many of our clients, pressure is coming from OEM customers concerned about the negative PR around warranty claims and recalls, in addition to the financial impact. They are putting pressure on their suppliers to innovate and provide that greater degree of quality assurance and traceability. The need to change is real and immediate—the supplier has to innovate to keep a customer or innovate to gain one.

Who should be our champion? The relationship with an OEM customer is usually owned by a product manager and/or sales person who serves as the direct point of contact. They are in the best position to appreciate the need and the urgency. That puts them in the prime role of champion to get the rest of the organization on the same page. If someone else in the organization is already preaching Industry 4.0 to deaf ears (such as an IT guy or quality engineer) and is better suited to the role of champion, that product manager and sales person can become key allies to make the case to everyone else.

How are we collecting production data? If parts and sub-assemblies are produced with serialized production, the Industry 4.0 battle is already half-won. The key to process improvements, quality gains and improved traceability on the production line is to collect and organize all process and test data by the serial number of the individual part/sub-assembly.

What do we want to do with that data and where do we start? Too much, too quick—that’s often the death of any digital-transformation initiative. Start simple and small—pick a single persistent quality issue on the production line and focus on it alone as a pilot. The benefit of this is two-fold: the concept will be proven by addressing a real problem that is already having real consequences for the business; the cost in the event of failure is kept to a minimum.

In closing

Much of what we read in the trade and industry press would have us think Industry 4.0 is already well-defined and under control. For a majority of manufacturers, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been a learning curve for our team as well, as we work with our customers and partners to determine where and how we fit into this brave new world for them. As with any major shift in the status quo, it takes broad-based support and baby steps to get it done right.

Jeff McBee is a regional sales manager for Cincinnati Test Systems.

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