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We Can Do Better Than Digital Transformation

Feb. 16, 2022
We’ve been at this long enough to start using more precise language.

Commentary

I don’t like the term “digital transformation.” Jargon should enable faster, more efficient communications. “Digital transformation,” is obfuscating mush.

Transform, transformation, or transformative, those are strong words. The digitization of analog cassettes to CDs and mp3 files, or 35 mm film to DVDs and Blu Ray or, heck, from pen-and-paper calculations to using computers—those were transformative changes. They also began taking place over 70 years ago. Simply employing modern technologies doesn’t carry the same weight.

I also don’t like the term because, too often, it sounds like a wide-ranging, pricey initiative that huge companies embrace but may be beyond the reach of small- to mid-size manufacturers. And I’ve already met small- to mid-size manufacturers that embraced digital technologies like IIoT and simple analytics and now enjoy huge, positive impacts on productivity.

“Digital transformation” is a label on a huge bucket that often seems to include things that don’t belong to the same set. Take additive manufacturing. While it depends on the use of digital files to define the object to be manufactured, the crux of the innovation is the physical hardware within the machines, the actual mechanisms that do the construction.

Or consider robotics. Yes, they depend on the digital language of ones and zeroes but it’s the robots themselves, not the digital information that drives them, that feels like the salient innovation. And General Motors installed the first robot on an assembly line in 1961 without anyone referring to it as “digital transformation.”

I recently spoke with Jeffrey Miller, director, industrial high tech at Kalypso, a Rockwell Automation company, for my upcoming Spring 2022 magazine feature about a robotics initiative that will change the efficiency game for at least one manufacturer. During our conversation, I expressed to Jeff my  feelings about this tiresome phrase.

“We’re dealing with digital transformation fatigue, and part of the reason is we picked up on a fashionable term, digital everything. Putting digital in front of anything made it more fashionable, and it was better for the cocktail circuit,” Miller said. “Practically speaking, you’re absolutely right. We’ve been dealing with ones and zeros forever. I’m the guy that was dealing with analog sensors and analog data that I sent by acoustically coupled modem at 9600 baud. That’s analog.”

The robotics initiative that I discussed with Miller involves flexible automation, the ability to upload new recipes to a series of different robotic work cells to run multiple SKUs on the same line without lots of expensive downtime.

“The use of information in these work cells, in the old days of analog and manual movement of data, even those ones and zeros, would not have been practical,” Miller said. “So it’s these new aspects of how we’ve been able to use data, mostly in terms of how it’s conveyed, managed, stored, shared, used, all which are now digital, that’s caused this digital transformation term.”

That limited definition makes more sense, at least. Capturing and interpreting data allows the creation of a digital twin, that allows experimentation and simulation of supply lines, manufacturing processes and the like. IIoT captures that data and creates a web of digital threads that can be accessed by anyone at any level in company, illustrating interdependencies and fostering deeper levels of organization-wide cooperation.

I still don’t think these constitute “transformations.” Again, they feel more like modernizations. We’re talking about improvements, businesses becoming more what they imagine themselves to be or accomplishing goals more easily thanks to the way we can capture and manipulate data. They’re still the same businesses as they were before. Smart use of data just makes them better.

I’m not going to single-handedly do away with the phrase digital transformation, or DX (See? Jargon makes it easier. I just saved 19 characters). I can talk a lot less about digital transformation, however, and a lot more about how moderate IT/OT investment with basic data analytics can reap huge dividends for even small manufacturing companies.

That, admittedly, is a lot more words than “DX.” It’s also a more useful place for businesses to start.

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