Most people that have heard me talk about digital transformation are probably sick of hearing me talk about the "order of magnitude" productivity gain that is promised by the ongoing digital industrial revolution. But here again it is a key principle that can be used to understand transformation and navigate through the existing maze of confusion of what is and is not digital technology. Simply put digital technology is a technology that can directly impact industrial or manufacturing operations to bring about an order of magnitude productivity increase.
I have compiled 4 critical elements that can help you sort through the maze of different technologies that are touted as digital, Industry 4.0 or Smart Manufacturing technologies based on this principle. These 4 elements can be framed as question that guide evaluation and selection of technologies:
Is it adopted and implemented in a "Bottom Up" manner?
Adoption and implementation are performed in an agile method, starting small in an iterative manner and building on outcome of each iteration. Agile approaches are an inherent part of the digital transformation and advocate a way to learn faster by short and rapid test-fail-learn cycles. The overall manufacturing systems solution is built from the bottom up in an iterative manner.
This is in stark contrast to the traditional system approaches, including MES, where top down hierarchical processes are used to provide a solution that fits within specific constraints that is hard to change. There should be no "gap assessments", the technology is adapted to the process in contrast to fitting the process to the solution. It also removes the difficulties associated with adhering to complicated standards and systems. It frees engineers to focus on building solutions rapidly that fit the process and increases the rate of implementation by an order of magnitude (here I go again...). There are some interesting implications to this approach one of which is that Industry 3.0 standards such as ISA-95 becomes less relevant in this context.
Does it inherently support and enable Continuous Improvement?
Lean principles are still the most effective way to achieve productivity increases in an industrial operation and therefore the technology should be a tool to implement these operational improvements. The adoption of the technology should be done in a methodical PDCA or DMAIC cycle with each improvement supporting the next. Changes and modifications to a solution are easy and support iterative and constant improvement. The technology solutions are targeted at improvement areas with clear and quantified goals.It should be no surprise that regardless of the paradigm shift that is going on Lean and the principles of TPS are still real and valid. There is a close connection between the continuous improvement process and agile (bottom up) development approach of using the technology/solution. Th technology should be a Lean tool that allows engineers to rapidly iterate thru solutions to problem building digital content to an effective solution.
Does it offer a Democratized approach and how does it enable "Citizen Developers"?
Users and implementors of the technology do not need to have unique and specific skills that are common for software, IT or automation engineers. Engineers and SMEs can rapidly adopt the technology to develop solution for the operations. The technology is so easy to use and learn that it is effectively accessible to most people with a basic level of technical aptitude. This allows the people that are closest to the process to craft solutions that are focused on solving a problem or provide an improvement. The technology should be adopted by people from within the operation rather than implemented by external parties.
Democratization and the citizen developer is an important aspect of the digital transformation. With modern digital technology we all can become builders of digital content. We already do this when using office tools such as Word and Excel and now we can even easily program our IoT door to open automatically when we get within range so we don’t have to take our key out. This is a big change compared to the high level of skills and expertise needed to build even simple automation tasks in traditional systems. No-Code/Low-Code is a key enabler of Democratization, it allows people with no programming or IT skills to build content that automates manufacturing processes in a simple and intuitive way.
I find that for bigger organizations citizen development may be alarming, i.e. they feel it is akin to "arming the rebels". However there is no way around it, the benefits far outweigh the risks in this case and democratization of technology is key element of the new digital age. At the same time most of the new platform technologies provide accessible and transparent control and management of content being created and consumed.
Is the technology able to provide Human Centric solutions?
The use of the technology should result in solution that serve humans or specifically frontline operators. It has to be intuitive, simple, easy to understand and easy to use. It has to serve the frontline operator by making him more productive, the operator is the key to the productivity gains promised by digital technologies in I4.0
Modern digital technologies and tools are built on the principle of supporting human activity, that is what makes them so effective and so widely adopted. People are the key to unlocking productivity gains from digital technologies, that therefore have to focus on supporting human activity. The premise is that in order to increase productivity technology needs to support the human operator. In the new digital age manufacturing needs to enable the connected worker whose tasks are monitored and supported by a larger network of digital tools. In addition the technology should be used to capture additional digital data streams such as instrumentation of the human activity, the data that human operators collect, input they can provide about the process, and more.
In conclusion, if a technology is not able to impact your operations in this significant way then its not digital technology - simply drop it from the list. Let's take a simple example: SaaS MES that is purportedly in the cloud and requires experts with specific skills set to configure and use with a 6+ months implementation time frame. This is not and example of digital technology. You should be seeing quantifiable productivity increase results within weeks of adopting any technology. Another example is if the technology implementation requires a waterfall/phased method that requires design of the substantial parts of the solution upfront then it is not a digital technology!