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You want to add more digital technologies to your manufacturing operations but your day-to-day duties are keeping you from getting started - sound familiar?

Kick off your digital transformation plan with this checklist to help identify which projects are the right projects you should be starting with. You know, the ones that will actually give you a sense of instant gratification, and the quickest return on your efforts.

The trick is to remember that digital transformation does not have to start with your most complex project. In fact, a recent report from McKinsey indicated that manufacturers are turning to smaller, more realistic projects that have a short-term impact on the business and provide more immediate benefits.

Often, excited manufacturers begin their digital transformation initiatives with their largest challenge to solve, quickly discovering that the reality of that venture is associated with high-cost technology investments. As more digital transformation projects kick off for manufacturers, there is a shift, with many starting off with “assisted” vs. “fully automated” technologies. Although a fully automated facility is the ideal future for many, the reality is complex — most manufacturing companies and their operations do things differently, and it’s difficult to get full automation right for every process from start to finish, especially with the first project.

Consider the example of a robotic vacuum. The prospect of not having to vacuum your entire home manually sounds great, it’s a dream. But to get it right, it certainly didn't happen the first time. Initially, there were issues with the robots following random patterns and not vacuuming all areas with the same consistency. Humans still needed to assist the automation. Now, as part of the setup process users assist the robot by determining boundaries for it to learn so that it doesn’t get stuck in one area of the house. We also set expectations with the robot, programing it to focus on specific areas of the home, like vacuuming twice in the kitchen.

As humans, we are learning to expect less of a futuristic view of robotics, where the vacuums ideally do everything instantly, and automatically, as if smart enough to do so. Instead, we now know we have to program and assist robotics in helping us vacuum. We know that sometimes robotics are not enough, and while I use a robotic vacuum quite often, I still vacuum myself the “old” way as well. In this example, the combination of both automation and manual operations ensures the best possible outcome, the lowest yield of quality errors, if you will.

Think back to digital transformation, and apply the same concept. What is the first thing on the checklist? Is there a manual process that could be done more efficiently with the help of an automated system?


Identify an area where technology can potentially help improve quality or efficiency by assisting, not replacing, the operators

In the McKinsey article, some of these types of tasks are related to worker assistance. In a quality control context, this can refer to things like verifying that the right components are placed in the correct areas, or whether a screw has been properly inserted. A potential fit with this could be considering implementing a system to assist with Final Quality Control checks before the product is shipped out.

Another error-prone area is the manual assembly of components. This is interesting because the simple solution is not to replace humans with a world of robots. There are many complex assembly tasks that require the advanced skills of human operators. Rather than venture into full automation with robotics, worker assistance tools can be an excellent, economic way to close the gap in quality control. This hybrid approach can range from digitizing work instructions to implementing systems that guide operators at each step, from component selection all the way through to verifying the assembly steps, checking for correct assembly and defects at the same point in the system.

Maybe the simplest way to start is just by doing a digital checklist for traceability at the end of the line, taking pictures of products prior to shipping.

It can be easy to get carried away wanting to do a retrofit for a fully automated facility, but the key to success is starting with the low-hanging fruit. Improving manual tasks with assistive robotics will help manufacturers see a quick return in quality control.


Set up a team dedicated to the digital transformation project, and get early buy-in from your operators

Speaking of quick wins — after identifying the ideal project to start off with, it will be helpful to have a team that is on board and dedicated to the project and the outcome. What does this mean?

Seek out someone who is interested in alleviating stress from operators, and risks from quality managers. This person is going to get the feedback and help advocate for it internally. Find a project manager and sponsor who will help oversee the project, working to define the criteria and milestones and coordinate with the operators and stakeholders, essentially the “owner” driving the project initiatives.

It is important to remember that the operators require communication with them. It can be easy for operators to feel left out of the decisions that affect their processes, not to mention the common, inherent fear of added technology or automation decreasing their value as operators. They need to be assured by having operators as part of the evaluation process; it allows a chance to experience and contribute to how they can use the technology in assisting them with tasks.


Define what success looks like

What does success look like for a digital transformation in manufacturing? Before starting to act out the implementation phases of the project, you should define with the team and stakeholders the end goal of the implementation.

For example, if the goal is to digitally transform Final Inspection checks, a common area for manual errors, is success defined as the operator is using an automation system as a support tool in determining Pass/Fail criteria? What are the key indicators for successful automation support? Is it for the outcome to be more objective? Or perhaps success is determined by measurement of efficiency or cost reduction? There may be several criteria to benchmark outcomes against, but identifying which benchmarks are of value will help to identify priority projects.


Evaluate if the process is worth implementing further automation

Digital transformation can be relatively simple or highly complex. When starting out on a digital transformation journey, many tend to be overly ambitious. The harsh reality is that full automation is likely not going to happen overnight and the less radical approach of low-hanging fruit projects are the best first stepping-stones.

Is there a certain manual task that is error-prone or time-consuming where the technology may help? Break down where technology already assists operators and collect the aforementioned success criteria and then ask yourself if it is worth automating further. In some cases, after going through the initial first phase of a digital transformation, you may be satisfied with the results of human-assisted automation and stop there.

This approach is similar to the “agile” vs. “waterfall” approach in software development. In the traditional waterfall development methodology, developers tend to stack many requirements together, that in combination deliver their end goal — similar to our end goal of “full automation” in manufacturing. However, in an agile approach in software development commands and features are usually broken down into smaller sprints, where at the end of each sprint, you have something usable, to continue building on. The agile approach allows for a more iterative method, with a quicker return on effort, as the developer does not have to wait until everything is implemented in order to get a usable product.

Consider this theory when reflecting on how and where you can break down a digital transformation project into smaller chunks, evaluating at each stage whether you need to move further towards full automation or not.


Rinse and Repeat

You’ve initiated your first digital transformation plan — what’s next?

As with any manufacturer, there is always an abundance of competing projects ready for digital transformation, and the more you achieve these incremental steps towards automation, the more prepared you will be for Industry 4.0.

When moving on to your next transformation, continue to refer back to what made the first project a success. Keep a “backlog” of digital transformation project ideas and reassess them on a regular basis with stakeholders, discussing the goals of business impact vs. implementation effort, in order to continue to prioritize the best level of automation for the facility.