Statistics from the European Commission forecast Industry 4.0 will see manufacturing production rise by 20 per cent by 2020, driven by a 50 per cent decrease in downtime. There is no doubt that the age of digital transformation is here, and its influence is growing. Darren Duke, business analyst at leading foam product manufacturer Zotefoams, discusses how manufacturers can harness data to reveal actionable business insights, and how innovative technologies can be deployed to improve modern manufacturing processes.

The use of technology does not automatically guarantee growth for manufacturers, but businesses can take advantage of the opportunities it enables if they have the correct mentality to embrace new technologies. Business leaders with an open mind who take time to review all possible technology avenues will be in a better position to make wise investments to gain a competitive edge. And to enable this open mindset, you need to have an open enterprise strategy.

As digital disruption continues to gather pace in the industry, manufacturers should be looking at innovative technology applications such as sensors to enable predictive product quality, in addition to the more developed predictive maintenance areas. Every manufacturer will have a differing use case for new technology, but technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have a wealth of potential and applications.

Using technology to predict and prevent

An example of AI and real-time monitoring is how they can help act on potential machine failures before the business reports any problems with plant equipment. With large screens in the maintenance workshop, each morning a maintenance team can assess what’s happening, pick up on any potential flaws and take preventative action before a machine stop.

This proactive approach is intended to maintain the smooth running of machines and increase overall equipment effectiveness. By using analytic and reporting software, maintenance teams can spot trends or outliers early – enabling them to respond in an agile way. Used correctly, this type of software will aid faster reactions to changing markets and customer needs.

Manufacturers should be constantly working to collect information from real-time or near-real-time automated analysis using AI to rapidly identify trends that a human could miss.

From the outside in

Businesses should also look outside their company as well as inside. In anticipation of market fluctuations, manufacturers should run a regular portfolio management exercise and assess how operational and market changes in the next year could move products around. Tools such as the Boston Matrix, which analyses businesses based on their growth and market share, can weigh up what opportunities or problems will be triggered and prepare for them accordingly.

The way emerging technology enables today’s manufacturers to pick up social media trends and industry conversations is particularly helpful and can reveal market insights such as unfulfilled customer needs. Take Microsoft Dynamics 365 for example. Applications and widgets within this platform allow organisations to gather information and use data analytics to get an idea of customer sentiment about products, brands and services. Compliments or issues can also be picked up on social media sources, and these capabilities are very effective in helping organisations gain a better understanding of customer expectations.

To keep pace with the speed and effects of digital disruption, manufacturers must embrace the transition towards fast data analysis, interaction through social networks and a shift to a light, app-based suite of systems. Younger business system users are typically used to an app-based ecosystem. Modern business management systems are especially valuable in delivering this as they enable businesses to tailor apps to boost productivity and streamline business processes.

Customer engagement adds market direction

We must all as manufacturers recognise the true value drivers for customers, and then put in place the internal measures to sustain this value. Our technology partner Columbus recently produced a major industry report investigating how manufacturers can effectively prepare for 2020 onwards. Drawing on academia, technical experts and industry leaders, it highlighted the emerging technologies that are enabling manufacturers to develop customer-centric strategies which put the customer at the heart of all business operations.

The manufacturer has traditionally had a distant connection with the customer, but a transformation to insight-driven businesses with a better grasp of market direction and developments will move us all much closer to customers and their requirements. This will speed up the movement fromrisk-aversee, capital intensive industries to a more agile, analytical and results-driven business with predictive process controls and improvements.

Gradual gains with digital disruption

New technologies are helping manufacturers realise the value of products from a customer or end user perspective and are enabling us to react faster to changes in the market. These technologies allow businesses to limit the time they spend collecting data from a range of ad hoc systems and focus more time on key decision-making.

A calculated approach to technology selection and deployment will make the potential of digitised manufacturing operations a reality for businesses of any size.