Unlocking Success of Worker Engagement on Digital
Published on : Thursday 04-01-2024
Amit Saluja, Founder & Managing Partner – digiXLT.
What are the key aspects to consider for a typical company that wants to switch over from a traditional manufacturing process to an automated environment?
Manufacturing has become the backbone for the country and with growing demand in both domestic and exports, it has become imperative for enterprises to look for ways to produce more with consistent quality and that too at a lesser cost. Challenges faced in plants have also grown multi-fold due to rising raw material costs, availability of skilled workers and uncertainty in demand. These factors are making every manufacturer look towards moving from traditional ways of using standalone machines to building integrated shop floors where machines can talk to each other and make decisions. Early days of automation and digitisation saw bringing machines to do core production work but now manufacturers are looking to even automate support processes like material movements and production planning and control function.
While manufacturers prepare for this transformation, they need to plan it as a journey and not look at it as one time setup. The start must be with building a digital mindset where management understands the applications of technologies on the shop floor and workers are open to using automated digital solutions. When it comes to assessing RoI to decide on adoption, both direct and indirect benefits and cost needs to be considered. As this is not straightforward, a better way of getting confidence is to do deployments at a small level in the plant and scale later based on the benefits received. Another important aspect is technology adoption should be planned with long term focus considering the company's future business objectives rather than trying to handle immediate challenges.
How scalable are automation and digitalisation solutions for different sizes of manufacturing facilities?
Technology and solutions are scalable, but differentiation happens in the level of adoption across different plant sizes. When it comes to core manufacturing operations, solutions are very much similar as it is more of doing the basic level of operations. What changes is the level of sophistication and the material handling systems. In smaller plants material movements, feeding and collection happens manually, which in large size plants is fairly automated as production volumes are much larger.
From a digitalisation point of view, application-level solutions are very much scalable across plant sizes, as it's more of doing data collection, analysis and decision making at machine level. Real difference comes at enterprise level digital infrastructure where large plants generally have integrated systems with data seamlessly flowing across departments and manufacturing functions.
While even in smaller plants, having integrated digitised operations will have benefits, but many times manufacturers have budget constraints to invest with a long-term horizon. Still, there are many successful examples of completely automated and digitised micro-factories where high mix and customised products are manufactured with the same level of efficiency and productivity as that of large global plants. These micro-factories are small & medium enterprises and have established new benchmarks for the traditional plants to produce higher quality products with competitive cost and extremely low time to market.
What are the initial costs associated with implementing factory automation and digitalisation?
When a manufacturer plans to initiate the factory digitalisation process, initial priority is to build the basic level of digital infrastructure. This means getting machine level connectivity established that will enable transfer of operations data and analytics capability for the specific application/use case where the manufacturer is facing challenges. Once connectivity is established, there are multiple applications that can be deployed based on the priority areas of improving plant operations. While it is needed that all the machines in the plant should be connected and on network, but to feel confident of the benefits, initially it can be done for a small number of machines, say 5 to 10 critical process equipment. This level of proof-of-concept solution for limited machines along with data analysis capability can be built with an initial investment of around Rs 10 lakh. Beyond this it is also recommended that manufacturers should have good ERP solutions deployed, options are available for industry specific or standard platforms, and it all depends on the level of customisation needed by the organisation. ERP deployment can also be done in stages as it’s a modular platform and can be started with basic level before expanding into utilising all the functionalities.
My suggestions are manufacturers should not get into detailed cost benefit analysis just at the start of the digitalisation journey; this is something to be done when results of initial proof of concepts are available. There is always a learning curve, and the right calculations can only happen when manufacturers understand the real benefits of digital solutions.
How does the adoption of automation and digitalisation impact the skills required for the workforce?
Digital skills of the workforce are the most important factor that decides the success of automation and digitisation initiatives in the organisation. This is needed both for the plant management team and for the workers though at a different level. Management and blue-collar workers need a basic level of understanding of technology to identify areas where digital solutions can help to drive productivity and efficiency improvements and for deploying the right solutions with the right approach. The team doesn’t need to understand what kind of AI and Analytics models are there and how they work, we just need to teach people benefits these models can bring in augmented decision making
For the workforce, a basic level of digital literacy is necessary so that they accept the change of using these solutions and willingly use them with a positive frame of mind. I have come across many examples of best of the solutions deployed but not giving the benefits just because workers didn’t have the basic skills on how to use them. Hence one area that can never be overlooked is the worker engagement on digital. I have also experienced this while doing design thinking workshops with workers; if we understand worker challenges and their mindset and use that insight to design solutions then the chance of acceptance increases a lot.
What specific considerations should manufacturers keep in mind when implementing automation and digitalisation with respect to safety and security?
Digitalisation brings tonnes of benefits but at the same time there are few associated risks that need to be taken care of during the planning and implementation phase. Integrated plant where all the machines are on network means there could be a potential cybersecurity risk if proper protocols and controls are not in place. This is where operational technology security solutions become must for deployment along with the standard networking infrastructure. There is a lot of awareness already on the IT level security mechanisms but on the OT side we need to bring more focus to ensure these get addressed during the planning stage only. Data protection is another area where priority needs to be there as for manufacturers, process IP is the most valuable component of the business. Majority of the times data leakage happens from the mistakes employees do unknowingly due to ignorance and hence proper process documentation and training are must to adhere to compliances. Security systems ensure even if mistakes happen, it gets reported immediately and appropriate timely action can be taken to avoid a potential loss.
From the safety point of view as more sophisticated machines are being used with robots moving around in a small place, proper SOPs and safety training should be given to the workforce. Barriers around robots to be placed with strict movement guidelines. Workers operating in hazardous areas need to be monitored remotely using IoT devices, which can be embedded in their regular PPE kits with capabilities of automated alerts in case of any accident.
How can existing machinery and systems be integrated into a digitalised manufacturing environment, and the challenges in the integration process?
Integrating legacy systems and machinery is the biggest challenge that comes in front of manufacturers looking to digitalise their plants. Problems happen when these machines are very old and not able to provide operations data as output or many times when manufacturers buy systems, but don’t take the option of using data export capability from the OEMs. Later on they realise that data is critical but at that time OEM asks for much more money to unlock the data export feature. This is where lots of digitisation projects get on hold and then, from RoI point of view, it becomes expensive.
While this is a huge issue, thankfully, we have lots of innovative deeptech startups who have come up with workarounds to extract data from the machines by capturing signals. In addition, there can also be options of placing additional sensors on the machines that provide basic level of operations data like counts, vibrations, noise, working time and electrical parameters. These approaches enable a good amount of operations visibility in the plant and help in condition monitoring of the critical assets. So, even if we have legacy systems, we don’t have to stall our digital plan and I recommend manufacturers to leverage startup capabilities and get going.
(The views expressed in interviews are personal, not necessarily of the organisations represented.)
Amit Saluja is founder and Managing Partner of digiXLT, an accelerator to help manufacturing industries, especially Small and Medium Enterprises, navigate through digital journey. digiXLT advices on planning digital initiatives that will enhance efficiency, productivity and customer experience and guide enterprises on implementing technology solutions leveraging structured deployment process, tools and frameworks like digital maturity assessment and design thinking.
Amit has held leadership positions at NASSCOM, IBM, General Electric, and RPG Transmission in a career spanning over 28 years. Having worked with industrial and technology companies in multiple domains, Amit has gained diverse experience in using digital technologies such as AI, Cloud, Analytics, and IoT to usher in greater efficiencies in manufacturing and driving business growth. He is a firm believer in making optimum use of technology for transforming internal business processes.
Amit is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and expert in devising Design Thinking methodology for building technology roadmaps and solution design. He is also a certified Smart Industry Readiness Index Assessor and trained to evaluate manufacturing enterprises on digital maturity and advice for transformation journeys.
Amit mentors SMEs and startups on business strategy, process improvement and building technology roadmap.