Most industry experts agree that digital manufacturing is the future. But how do you get there while maintaining production and without breaking the bank? Here are six steps to set you on the road to a digital future in maintenance, repair and operations.

1. Understand
“Understand the real-world problem you are trying to address. There is no value in launching a digital transformation unless you are clear on the benefit you want to achieve,” says Richard Jeffers, Managing Director of RS Industria, RS Group.

Alex Smith of digital manufacturing company CIM Logic agrees. In his view, a structured approach is required from the outset. “It is critical to recognise what the ‘need’ is for a digital solution,” he says, in an article outlining his organisation's own five-step RAISE process for future-proofing operations.

“Uncover what business challenges are causing you the greatest headaches. You must know what business benefit will be delivered and what value or cost-saving will be achieved.”

"Future-proofing starts with a clear vision for how digital manufacturing will deliver a competitive advantage, along with a phased road map for implementation."McKinsey and Company

Research by McKinsey demonstrates the importance of digital transformation in manufacturing to maintain a competitive advantage, but it must begin with a clear objective and clarity of purpose. “Future-proofing starts with a clear vision for how digital manufacturing will deliver a competitive advantage, along with a phased road map for implementation based on a business case in which technology is the enabler rather than the driver of change. Without this business-first orientation, it’s easy to be led by the latest shiny object rather than focusing on the digital-manufacturing solutions that address specific operational pain points and drive tangible bottom-line impact.”

2. Identify
Identify the issues you will face. Start by taking a step back and looking at how your business operates and map out the processes. You might be surprised to find that not all parts of the organisation are following the processes you thought you had in place.

Ian Clarke, CEO of digital manufacturing consultancy Velocumen, has identified a significant gap that is holding back a large number of manufacturing businesses in the UK.

“What I see in almost every business I visit, is that their machines are not connected into a site-wide digital strategy. That's the bit many big companies really struggle to create; a sensible strategy for how their business is going to find out what’s going on in those machines. What's their productivity? What's their overall equipment effectiveness? That's just not happening.”

3. Engage
Engage the right people in the organisation. You need to get board level buy-in and you need to demonstrate that there will be a good return on investment (ROI). It’s important for senior engineers to develop communication skills so they can effectively engage stakeholders at all levels.

Clarke says maintenance engineering leaders need to understand board-level thinking and objectives so they can communicate the need for transformation-focused investment. “Senior management these days are working on such a short ROI window. When the head of maintenance engineering says they need to spend £50,000 to start a digital transformation strategy, the board's response is likely to be; well what are we getting in return in the next two years?”

He is clear that this can be difficult to articulate, so it’s important to predict and prepare a convincing argument. Failure to do so risks a delay to implementation and puts the organisation at risk of falling behind competitors.

There’s more here on How to Write a Compelling Business Case.

4. Select
Select your software and hardware providers. Smith says that it’s vital to choose a partner who will be in it for the long run because digital transformation is a journey and it won’t be over in months. “This should be a company that understands not just the tech but your business, with experience in solving the issues you have. Ideally, with experience specific to your industry as often problems are the same within manufacturing, so look at the solutions they’ve delivered.”

This is one the toughest parts of the transformation process, according to Clarke. He highlights the fact that you will almost certainly need to continue to use existing plants and machinery, so you need to find solutions that will work with legacy equipment: “the vast majority of machines, in all factories, are old by their very nature. In many cases, they're over 40 years old”.

"The cost of that data and the ability to process it has dramatically reduced, because technology can collect and interpret it."Richard Jeffers, Managing Director of RS Industria, RS Group

5. Use the data
Factories are already full of data that’s not currently being accessed, according to Jeffers. “It’s not that we've suddenly discovered that data allows you to do predictive maintenance, it's that the cost of that data and the ability to process it has dramatically reduced, because technology can collect and interpret it.”

He believes it’s vital to unlock that data and use it to improve your processes and increase efficiency, adding that having hard data also avoids disputes about what needs to change. Clarke agrees, but adds that getting at the data can be hard. There are many cases where vendors refuse to allow companies to freely access their digital manufacturing data, he says: “Companies have to realise that collaboration between machine vendors, rather than competition, is best for industry.”

6. Stay on the journey
Digital manufacturing opens up a world of continuous improvement. As Smith points out, it is a journey not a destination at which you arrive and sit back. Jeffers says the data enables much more accurate predictive maintenance and is critical to reducing breakdowns and downtime. Being able to measure and monitor everything you are doing allows you to continually improve efficiency.

Embarking on a digital manufacturing transformation can be daunting. But by following these simple steps you can navigate the journey and enjoy the significant benefits.