Digital transformation isn’t about finding the needle in the haystack of big data – it’s about the relentless focus on deriving new business value from digitizing and optimizing your operations. And leading companies are already proving just how impactful such data-driven business improvements can be.
Digital transformation is helping automaker Ford, for example, manage more than 2 million product variations in real time across its plants. It also gave mining company BHP Billiton a twentyfold increase in access to production data to help increase uptime. And it’s helped PepsiCo achieve a 90% reduction in troubleshooting time.
These companies are giants in their industries, but what they’re doing – connecting their operations, gaining access to relevant data and digitizing processes – can be done by anyone, using modern technologies that are already available.
Opportunities in Your Supply Chain
Most companies are interested in digital transformation for its ability to optimize their supply chains.
In consumer-focused industries, this could mean improving your ability to predict customer demand and make the corresponding adjustments in areas like procurement and production scheduling to satisfy that demand. In heavy industries, it could mean meeting demand requirements by delivering the highest possible quality at the lowest possible cost.
Digital transformation makes these optimization opportunities possible by unlocking value that has long been hidden in silos in most enterprises. It enables a digital thread, for example, through which you can seamlessly collect, analyze and share your data. It also allows you to create “digital twins” of your physical assets or processes, so you can test systems before they’re built, evaluate production changes before they’re made, and validate performance at runtime.
These and other capabilities can be applied throughout the production lifecycle, including design and commissioning, operations, maintenance, and R&D innovation efforts. However, most companies need some help when it comes to identifying and rolling out the technologies that are right for them.
Charting Your Course
Embarking on a journey to digital transformation doesn’t need to be a long, arduous venture into the unknown. Those that have already made the journey provide a rough roadmap for you to follow.
In short: begin by identifying the business problems you want to solve. From there, consider getting an outside perspective on what technologies can help you address those problems. Once the solutions are selected, run pilot programs to prove the realization of business value, and then scale and deploy those programs across your operations.
Those that have embarked on a digital-transformation journey also can prove out the technologies that are key to the process. Four successful examples of these technologies in use include:
Software applications for digitization and IT/OT convergence help companies achieve workflow adherence, collaboration and tracking in their plants. Software can scale from focused applications, such as for quality or performance, to industry-specific suites of applications, or comprehensive manufacturing execution systems (MES) for multi-plant rollouts.
Chinese pharmaceutical maker Zhejiang Medicine Co. (ZMC) deployed a pharmaceutical industry-specific software platform to help its new facility go paperless. This software platform integrates production processes from the plant floor to the enterprise, while also digitizing paper records and automating document management. ZMC estimates this will help the company save 5% to 10% in labor costs by eliminating manual recording, while also reducing batch-product-review cycle times by as much as 75%.
Our own digital-transformation journey at Rockwell Automation included deploying a single, multiplant MES to replace the different MES solutions that were in place across our facilities. The flexible MES includes applications that can be used in all our facilities and a common manufacturing platform that can be expanded to different regions and product groups. Its real-time KPI monitoring has helped us increase efficiency and improve quality, including a 50% reduction in parts-per-million defects.
Scalable analytics software helps companies quickly and easily derive value from their data through analytics at every level of their organization. When combined with scalable computing, from edge devices to cloud computing, analytics software can process and present actionable information at all levels of the enterprise including closest to the data source.
Dairy protein producer Milk Specialties used analytics to optimize its operations and meet rapidly growing demand. The company deployed a manufacturing intelligence system that collects and correlates process, business and lab data to create actionable analytics. Now, in-plant scoreboards help workers meet production targets. And at a higher level, the analytics help justify key operational changes, including process improvements that have led to a 7% throughput increase.
As part of our journey, we’ve deployed scalable computing and analytics at the controller level and in the cloud. We use computing in the controller to run real-time analytics that drive real-time actions on the plant floor. In our printed-circuit-board production, for example, we use real-time predictive analytics that can tell operators to slow down production or take other actions to prevent failures. Meanwhile, in the cloud, we collect and analyze data from about 20 plants and use it to bring lagging machines up to the performance level of top-performing machines.
Collaboration and design tools support seamless collection and sharing of knowledge to empower teams with better decision-making. The tools can be used for sharing and discussing information about incidents, devices, alarms, trends and almost anything else that might be useful for improving performance.
Just consider the full lifecycle benefits of a digital twin. When a machine is being designed, for instance, its digital twin can be run in simulation mode. This can help reduce the time and costs associated with commissioning. Using digital twins in operations and maintenance can decrease downtime by allowing users to simulate changes to a process or updates to equipment before deploying in the physical machine. And digital twin technology is being combined with virtual, augmented or mixed reality to enhance visualization of operations and maintenance, and to support operator training.
In our own operations, new mobile apps that seamlessly connect workers are helping improve collaboration on our plant floors. If there’s an alarm on a machine, an operator can use the app to connect to the specialist who knows how to respond to it – even if that specialist is in another time zone. Regardless of where they are, the specialists can see the same alarm display and data as the operator, troubleshoot the issue, and guide the operator to a resolution.
Connected services help companies maximize their use of connectivity and production data, especially as part of continuous-improvement initiatives. Services include training and supplemental support of in-house teams, such as through remote monitoring. These services can help companies through their digital-transformation journey by helping design and implement networks, secure smart-manufacturing assets, and provide ongoing optimization support.
When an oil and gas company upgraded the pumping equipment at its offshore oil-drilling platforms and operations, it used a vendor service to remotely monitor the new pumps. The service collects real-time data from the equipment and can alert support engineers of potential issues to help reduce downtime and increase pump efficiency.
In one instance, the vendor was on the phone to discuss the problem with production staff within five minutes after a well tripped offline. The vendor helped staff verify the issue, replace the part and get back online immediately. This saved the company at least six hours of troubleshooting – significant savings considering that downtime can cost the company $100,000 to $300,000 per day.
An Unstoppable Force
Digital transformation is already happening, and it’s inevitable in any organization that wants to prosper in our connected world. But companies shouldn’t undergo digital transformation simply for the sake of doing it. Rather, they should align every aspect of it with specific business outcomes and carry it out as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible using lessons learned from those that have already made the journey.
Sujeet Chand is a senior vice president and chief technology officer with Rockwell Automation. He is responsible for leading global technical innovation and business development with a focus on making a difference for customers by helping them achieve greater productivity and sustainability. Sujeet earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Florida.