Fix Your Operations First, Then Technology Can Shine

High angle of mature male engineer in uniform and hardhat using tablet to control robotic arms during work on contemporary car factory
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By: Rick Wheeler | VP of Professional Services, Life Cycle Engineering

As published in Industry Week


Digital transformation can help you get to your goals, but the foundational work needs to happen first.


What could manufacturing look like in the future? Production lines running day and night with no one physically present to monitor them. Processes so accurate you could literally have your lights out and still run with 100% reliability. Totally integrated sites with live process data informing you of a two-second delay in production.

It may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie but thinking about your plant with this future state in mind (even if you never get there) may be the key to operational success.  

So how do manufacturers approach this new world? We can look to the automotive industry as a success story. General Motors’ “factory of the future” project in the 1980s applied new (at the time) automation practices and only employed 42 workers. At the time, it was labeled one of the most advanced plants in the world. Although their “lights-out” operational goals were never fully achieved, many of the technologies and processes were transferred to other GM plants, where they are still used today. 

Fifty-eight percent of manufacturing leaders say they have an ongoing autonomous plant initiative, but many lack the simple ability to track data and retain staff. Some would say the solution is technology: Implementing costly AI programs, sensors, virtual reality or automation sounds appealing. 

But technology itself isn’t the fix; it’s the accelerator. What is the most important part of getting to your digital transformation goals? It is putting the right foundations in place first. This means understanding the root cause of your asset failures. You’ll only get there through a balance of people, processes, tools and technology. It’s what we call smart operations, and it starts by understanding what your organization needs to change and why you’re trying to change it. 

Know Your Destination 

We see customers spending millions getting IT systems and instrumentation in place without first having clarity on how and why they need it or are using it. Technology initiatives will likely fail if you are lacking basic job plans and workflows. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to ask yourself what your organization is trying to accomplish. Do you want to get to a more automated state of operation? If so, your goal may be to moderate your reliance on people and get your assets working to their peak capacity. How robust is your existing asset dataset? How far do you really need to go on your digital journey? Is the asset critical to your operations to warrant data collection?

There are many tools that can be used during this process – application rationalization, data capability and instrumentation assessment, mapping the transition from one software to another, to name a few – but enforcing these tools and ensuring workflows are being followed is as (or more) important than the tools themselves. 

It’s safe to say technology is an important consideration in moving from a reactive to a proactive operation – but the balance between your people, processes and technology is critical to your success. 

Capturing Knowledge from People and Machines

If the labor shortage has shown us anything, it’s the importance of optimizing processes and creating better workflow management. We all have a story of that one plant supervisor who’s been there for decades and could hear a bearing or gear that was failing with his naked ear, then pinpoint the exact location. Well, that person has retired – and took their expertise with them. 

Technology can help to capture this knowledge and pass it down to the next generation of workers through electronic work instructions and augmented reality, while reducing the number of workers required to keep operations running. Digital sensors can be used to monitor a machine’s health, sending the information wirelessly, where the problem is then logged and maintenance determined.

Employing these technologies also means your workers have the opportunity to learn new skills and hone their old ones, possibly leading to reskilling or upskilling your workforce. So while technology might replace some of your missing employees, it may also help you hang on to the ones you want to keep. 

Your Machines are in Place, Now What? 

Once you’ve done your foundational work, you know what path you are on, defined your goals and done the work to get your people on board. You now have some technology in place helping you operate better, faster, cheaper and safer. 

This could be the right time to start a risk-based asset management plan to help optimize your physical assets – a critical step in building a strong foundation for any digital transformation.

In the early stages of risk assessment, value stream maps are developed to identify waste and better understand how asset reliability impacts the value stream. Data is also collected from your machinery in this stage. An analysis of equipment can help your organization better understand the significance of failure to workflows and business processes. This could include environmental impact, safety, production and quality, to list a few. 

We recently guided and supported a global pharmaceutical company on their digital transformation journey. First, we analyzed their equipment and process operation conditions. AI and machine-learning platforms were used as a way to predict equipment failure. We developed a comprehensive set of over 130 software/system user requirements, such as AI/ ML modeling capability, system data exchange interfaces and system scalability.

The project has moved to the next phase – deployment of their new asset performance management (APM) platform at the client’s biotech manufacturing site. Establishing the needed engineering support roles and business processes will help them effectively use this technology within their operations.

Digital Transformation Is Ongoing

For any organization, better reliability and maintenance practices are just the beginning of the journey to smart operations. Financial stability and increased worker retention are a few of the benefits. Invest in your people and provide them with the right skills and knowledge to succeed. As Steve Jobs once said, “People with passion can change the world.” 

There is no finish line when it comes to digital transformation. It’s an ongoing process that requires continuous innovation, improvements and adaptation. Technology plays a key role, of course – but when there’s a commitment to putting the right foundations in place first, “lights-out” operations may not seem like such a distant goal after all. 

Rick Wheeler is vice president of professional services, Life Cycle Engineering. He has a broad range of experience in the pharmaceutical, chemical and nuclear industries. A proven change agent with expertise in maintenance, engineering, construction and production, Rick has been extremely successful in leading improvement initiatives resulting in significant process improvements and substantial cost savings. Rick is responsible for developing the LCE staff and ensuring the quality of the services delivered by the LCE team. He works closely with the Reliability Consulting Group leadership team in developing LCE’s Industry 4.0 capabilities and services that leverage LCE’s thought leadership in asset management based on the ISO 55000 body of knowledge.