The digitization of manufacturing plants is currently a hot topic amongst the automation community. Every manufacturer is talking about it, learning the benefits of it, and training their leaders on the various technologies that drive it (IoT, AI, ML, AR/VR, cloud computing, etc.). Digital transformation in manufacturing is not only a priority, but essential towards adapting to a more digital world. Those who don’t embrace it might very well fall behind competitors who are leading the way in the digital journey.

Industries which implemented digitization in the early 2000s such as retail, banking, and tourism have shown great growth in the last two decades. Companies such as Amazon practically wiped out their competitors by digitizing their operations and connecting directly to the consumer. By digitizing operations, processes become more transparent, helping people immediately identify bottlenecks. This helps increase overall efficiency while reducing unnecessary waste and costs.

Where Should We Start Our Digital Transformation Journey, and Who Should Be a Part of it?

Plant roles play an essential part in the digitization of manufacturing and can contribute to a seamless digital transformation. Machine operators also play a vital role in this journey due to the monitoring and control of raw machine data fed to the larger digital system. You can put forward the best analytics system or highly experienced data scientists to analyze the captured data, but without the correct raw data, one won’t be able to take any corrective actions or decisions.

As operators work on machines 40+ hours a week, they gain deep knowledge over time of machine functions, capabilities, drawbacks, downtime, repair procedures, and other critical data points. These data points form the backbone of digital systems; these data points are needed to take action and store knowledge for future guidance.

Without this knowledge, digital systems are incomplete. No operator wants to fill out long paper sheets logging their hourly production, machine stoppages, and quality issues daily. Some of them might not even be comfortable reporting or taking help from their supervisors if they don’t know how to repair machines. Understanding their pain points and giving them access to digital information is key. It will also reduce coordination time between operators, supervisors, and other departments.

The Ideal Digital System

 These days, operators are very much digitally proficient. Most have smartphones and use several online platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. They know how to type, submit forms, and view or send information to others digitally. If user-friendly interfaces (UIs) are designed for them, they will validate and share the critical information on their machines in real-time so that plant managers can take immediate action. The system can also show them their performance over time (i.e., whether they are doing better compared to prior shifts, or other operators), which will then motivate them accordingly.

The ideal digital system is one in which they inform operators before the start of their shift, “What is the production plan for today? On which area or machine am I assigned to in the production line? What is the output expected from me at the end of the day?”

The digital system should show them their key performance indicators (KPIs) in real-time during their shifts, give them UIs to view or feed information, and, at the end of the day, send performance summaries. This will drive the engagement of operators, providing vital information of a facility’s production machines and lines.

Don’t Lose Out

Most companies ignore their operators while planning digital projects. Digitization is always looked at as a tool to reduce manpower on the shop floor because of its cost and dependability. But not all machines in a factory can run themselves. They need to be fed, maintained, and monitored regularly to be kept functional. Upgrading to smart machines or lines will be a huge cost for most plants, and still won’t automate them completely. Manual quality checks performed by operators will still need to be done in the process.

By digitizing operations, one can increase the productivity and capacity of plants without removing manpower. This can be a win-win situation for both the manufacturers and the operators. Each role in the digital transformation journey should embrace change and transform the process from the inside out. By focusing on these roles and responsibilities, plant digitization can lead to a well-oiled machine providing comprehensive outcomes.

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