In the rush to embrace digital transformation, businesses of all sizes will doubtless face pressure from innovative rivals, some with better digital skills or investment capabilities but that should not deter them. Peer insight from early adopters can help them understand crucial risks, spot real opportunities for growth and avoid hurting their bottom line with unnecessary tech investments. Thomas Honoré, CEO of Columbus explains how manufacturers can outsmart the competition with a strategy geared towards understanding how customers use products, and how innovation can be applied to improve the customer experience.

Accenture reports that 95 per cent of C suite decision-makers expect major strategic challenges connected to disruption and Industry 4.0 developments yet only one in five organisations are prepared for this. 

I often wonder if these businesses feel that they are watching their industry evolve through the window of a time machine racing forward, towards the next new thing, more connected, intelligent and confusing than ever before.

When will Industry 4.0 become yesterday’s news? How can manufacturers learn to prepare for the future, when it is unclear what it holds? There are three fundamental steps every business should start with.

Manufacturers Take IT personally

Car sharing schemes have disrupted car rental businesses, online web stores are challenging high street shops and smartphones have rendered useless telephone boxes, the yellow pages and even physical money. Today, studies suggest up to half of all jobs could undergo some kind of automation over the next ten years.

But watching these trends, small and medium size businesses might get the impression that the birth of the next industrial revolution is confined to Silicon Valley. In reality, it’s happening right, on their doorstep and they can all take a slice from the digital transformation cake.

Keeping a close eye on market trends is useful for many reasons it informs decision makers of the state, future and key players of the industry. It helps them pinpoint where the next business changing disruption is likely to take place. To thrive, businesses must embrace disruption and apply innovation wherever they can.

Solve your customer’s problems – technology can help

Businesses that focus too much on the technical side of things risk overlooking the biggest growth potential – customer satisfaction. Can you clearly identify what your customers want? Do you know where your product adds value and where it falls short? 

A winning digital strategy is driven by a clear understanding of customer pain points and where the company’s products or services can solve them. Digital transformation doesn’t require businesses to rip and replace a working business model it just means augmenting capabilities to meet and exceed customer expectations.

This notion is widely reflected in the industry. A recent Columbus benchmarking report asked experts from Microsoft, Weetabix and BMW Oxford, how customer needs shape their ‘Manufacturing 2020’ strategy. All agreed it took centre stage in their efforts, with Gunther Boehner, Director of Assembly at BMW Oxford saying, “Manufacturers need to have a strong focus on their core processes, which directly relate to customers’ needs and pain points.”

Assessing how a company’s products are used is not an easy task but data can help. IoT technology can help manufacturers get closer to the customer and turn data into actionable insights. This only works if you have the organisation, processes and systems to handle the information overload. 

Partner up | technology partnerships can separate leaders from laggards

As digital transformation takes businesses on to the next innovation challenge, readily available, on-hand expertise and skills become a valuable currency. But for most manufacturers, developing the solutions that give them a competitive advantage cannot be done in-house.

Careful selection of technology partners is crucial because they will have a major impact on the ability to develop better mechanisms, implement new technologies and achieve smarter data management. For instance, growing data visibility was a strategic priority for Weetabix. In the Columbus report, Neil Clarke, Head of business unit explains, “We are constantly growing our data visibility, through hardware and software. We are also using new machinery technologies to continually automate for consistency and lower costs. Live data gives real time feedback to the operator on what they need to correct.”

Start today

So how can manufacturing businesses of all shapes and sizes reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution while preparing for the next wave of innovation? Amid growing competition, rising customer expectations and an ever-evolving industrial technology scene, a good place to start is to prioritise digitally-minded leadership, skills and technologies and a customer centric business model.

These steps will enable manufacturers to embrace disruption today and tomorrow and stay ahead of the competition.