21 April, 2024

Understanding the scope and potential of digitalisation

25 October, 2022

There is growing interest, coupled with a fair amount of remaining confusion, surrounding digital transformation. As editor, I’m aware that many readers of this journal certainly want to know how digitally transformative technologies can play a positive part in their companies’ road to business and operational optimisation and development. So, reflecting on sources that could throw more light on the topic within the context of manufacturing and supply chain issues, I remembered some recent Talking Industry panel discussions.

Among several strong potential sources from the webinars, one that I feel provides some of the most detailed and wide-ranging insight regarding the use cases for digital transformation dates from a Talking Industry event from the latter part of last year. During the presentation, Professor Sam Turner, the chief technology officer of HVM Catapult, made the point that one of the many potential use cases for digitalisation is at the design stage, looking at how companies can use digital tools to optimise the process.

He explained that the digital tool thread can then start to think about breaking down barriers between design and manufacturing. “So, if we can gather data from manufacturing performance and bring it back to design, we can start to enhance productivity performance of the assets for designing,” he said. Professor Turner then reflected that a major reason for digital transformation for manufacturers concerns manufacturing performance and productivity. He cites examples of intelligent automation including assisted assembly using digitalisation techniques and optimised process controls for automated machine processes such as machine tools

Professor Turner also considered the growing need to build net-zero supply chains and net-zero manufacturing. He believes there is a huge role for digital tools in capturing a single source of true data around, for example, companies’ materials coming into the manufacturing supply chain factory, how to report the emissions in the factory and using digital systems to optimise resource efficiency and energy efficiencies alongside productivity and quality. Of course, AI and machine learning techniques and things such as advanced robotics are how companies can start to derive some of the value from data, but Professor Turner stresses that capturing data and creating clean data is a crucial starting point. He also observes many applications using assets such as augmented reality digital tools, “probably more than virtual reality where we are assisting physical operations that aren’t normally automated, providing greater robustness and guidance to operators”

Professor Turner also made the point that data can be captured around otherwise unautomated manufacturing processes that enable flexibility without an operator having to have the detailed skills for a whole range of operations. This leads on to a big trend known as the digital twin – the combining of a physical asset and a digital model with an interaction between the two. “There’s a huge amount of hype around digital twins but there are opportunities here as well,” said Professor Turner. “A digital twin of a manufacturing system or process could be taking real-life production data and feeding into the model which enhances the model’s prognostics and capabilities. This can help you to make decisions that can then change the way you either flow goods around a factory or even change the control systems potentially on a manufacturing process or automation process.”

He also reflected that although there are many developers offering compelling solutions, “if they don’t speak to each other, it’s difficult to know where to start and can therefore result in constraints that prevent getting the best out of the digital solutions available to us”. A fine point. With all the fine technology that continues to be developed and refined with a view to gaining traction in the real world, it would be unfortunate if one of the main obstacles to deployment and user success was simply a lack of pan-industry communication. This is undoubtedly taking place at association committee meetings et al, but even more platforms for dialogue to the mutual benefit of all concerned would no doubt be welcome.

Ed Holden, editor

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