5 Ways Manufacturers Can Build Towards a Digital Future

Many manufacturers have been slow to make the transition.

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Industry 4.0 brings us one step closer to the factories of the future. Smart equipment and connected technologies can continually monitor machines and self-diagnose issues, uncovering new ways to widen margins and generate revenue.

Despite the benefits of Industry 4.0, many manufacturers have been slow to make the transition. They’re often held back by legacy equipment, workforce and talent gaps or budget constraints.

A sound digital strategy can help manufacturing companies overcome these hurdles. Companies need to map out their long-term strategic goals before they start adding bells and whistles to the plant floor. Every technology deployment should align with the company’s longer-term vision for people, processes and technology.

Follow these five steps to bring everything into alignment and plan a successful digital transformation: 

1. State the business case

Technology investments should pay for themselves — at a minimum.

Calculate the difference a digital tool or technology would make in business terms, such as uptime, asset utilization, scrap reduction or productivity. Match real, financial figures to the features and tools you plan to adopt. Map out the return on investment (ROI) upon adoption and over time, so leaders can see the sustainable effects of transformation.

2. Start connecting data

Don’t wait to launch Industry 4.0. Start collecting and aggregating data from the tools you have today.

Identify key data that you need to support the business case and evaluate performance. What do you have access to today? What’s missing? Which KPIs need to be monitored in real time? Later, you can use this inventory to guide how you connect data sources across the plant floor.

3. Measure and share performance metrics

Use your data to create actionable metrics and increase visibility about what’s happening on the floor. Make sure the information gets to the right people, at the right times, so they can initiate improvements.

Not sure where to start? Look at data on overall equipment effectiveness, total effective equipment performance, mean time before failure or mean time to repair.  

4. Integrate data from the shop to the top

Different systems format and define data differently, and data is often interrelated. A common interface makes it more efficient to exchange production, inventory, quality and maintenance data — and mitigates the chances for risk or error. 

Start connecting data from the shop floor into enterprise-wide systems, like an enterprise resource planning (ERP) tool. Manufacturers can follow the International Society of Automation’s model for operations management (ISA-95) for best practices on data exchanges and controls.   

5. Predict and influence quality

With connected data and real-time performance measures, manufacturing companies can start looking ahead. Instead of reporting on past performance, you can predict outcomes and quality events and make better decisions during key moments.

Leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to drive toward zero downtime and zero-defect manufacturing.

The human element of the digital journey

A successful transformation isn’t a completely digital affair. Smart factories and Industry 4.0 tools are connecting workers.

People need to adopt and trust tools to make a difference. Advocate for intuitive interfaces and tools that enhance the employee experience and safety, such as wearables or augmented reality. Ultimately, digital transformation improves outcomes by supporting worker productivity, training and remote assistance.  

Use technology as a force multiplier

A digital transformation road map should account for people and processes, not just technology. When everything comes into alignment, each element of the business becomes supercharged.

Start small. Create a pilot use case to test Industry 4.0 technologies and build support. Use learnings from the proof of concept to create a template for future projects, training and assessment plans.

Note all the wins, no matter how small, so you can replicate and scale the results. Over time, you’ll establish an internal center of excellence to launch from.


Mo Abuali HeadshotWipfliMo Abuali is a senior director with over 23 years of experience in providing consulting services. Mo is a transformative technology and business management leader in driving and sustaining change in manufacturing.

Mo serves industrial and manufacturing clients providing Industry 4.0, Industrial IoT (IIoT) and digital transformation technology solutions, services and training. Mo has worked with companies like IBM, P&G and Toyota.

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