Big data. Analytics. Artificial intelligence. Internet of Things. Automation. Robotics.
If you read industrial industry publications (or talk to people in the IT department), you’ve heard these buzzwords floating around. What may not be clear is how exactly they improve industrial processes and/or make your company more profitable.
In fact, you may be wondering whether they’re worth investing in at all. Your old software is still trucking along just fine. Do you really need to drop a huge chunk of change on industrial software innovation?
The answer to that question will be different for every business and for every individual reading this post, and we can’t give you a definitive answer without talking to you and getting to know your company.
What we can do, however, is give you the basic information you need to take the next step.
Industry 4.0 and What It Means for Industrial Software
In 2014, Jeff Immelt of GE famously stated: “If you went to bed last night as an industrial company, you’re going to wake up this morning as a software and analytics company.” And that was before robots, AI, and IoT applications had become common in the manufacturing industry, but it was true then and it’s still true today.
There are several reasons for that.
Competition. Your competitors are already integrating solutions to make their manufacturing processes faster and more efficient. If they can drive down the cost of production, they can undersell you.
Productivity. The right software innovation can reduce manufacturing cycle times and make your employees more efficient. When you add in robotics, AI, and augmented reality, you can get repetitive or tedious jobs done much faster than you can with human workers.
Decision Making. Data facilitates effective decision-making, but you only if you have the infrastructure and capability to store, analyze, and access it efficiently. And with the exponential growth in the amount and variety of data, this is a big job that gets bigger if you delay it.
What this means for manufacturers is that upgrading your software may be the first step toward reaching your profit and productivity goals for 2018.
What You Need to Know Before You Buy New Software
Robin Dechant has a great article about the new concepts and technologies associated with Industry 4.0. It’s worth the time to read through what’s happening with this fourth-stage “industrial revolution” that’s taking place.
I won’t go into that level of detail here, but here’s a brief overview of some things that should be on your radar as you consider the next innovation horizon for your company. Let’s focus for a moment on the software side of the equation, not the machines and equipment side of the equation. Of course, those two have to work together, but they’re going to require different conversations about what your company needs and what kind of budget you have to invest.
Here are some things to consider as you look at new software:
New Features and Functionalities
Forbes reports that only 5 percent of manufacturers are happy with their digital strategies, and then suggests five trends that should inform your choices as you decide on a path for moving forward. We’ll look at four of them here:
IoT. The Internet of Things has the ability to streamline manufacturing processes and give you a competitive edge. Smart machines can take on some decision-making responsibility to reduce cycle times and deliver products faster. And as customers demand increasingly customized products, IoT makes it possible to implement mass processes to create higher customer satisfaction.
AI and Machine Learning. So-called “smart factories” use machine learning and artificial intelligence to automate processes that once required (and waited on) human judgment calls or guidance. That means fewer opportunities for error, higher quality end-products, greater efficiency, and less waste. And of course, all of that means lower costs and higher profits. Win-win.
Robots. Perhaps the most important use of robots in manufacturing is replacing human workers in potentially dangerous jobs. They’re also being used for maintenance, repair, and even machine operation to increase efficiency. And as they work, they gather data that can be used to improve processes over time.
Data and Analytics. Speaking of data, we’re drowning in it. Some predictions estimate that we will have 50 times more data in 2020 than we did in 2010. That means that each and every business and department needs a way to store and analyze data if we’re going to benefit from it.
The fifth trend in Forbes’ article is improved speed and efficiency. This is basically the natural result of the four trends we listed above. Either way, better software and digital innovation means improved opportunities for growth and profit.
So Is It Time to Upgrade?
There are plenty of pros to investing in digital transformation, but what about the cons? Here are a few challenges you should consider before jumping on the bandwagon:
Security. With the proliferation of data comes an increased need for security. Do you have sufficient protocols in place to protect sensitive information from leaks and hacks? If not, how much will it cost to bring them up to speed?
Overinflated Expectations. All of this technology can be a wonderful thing, but it’s not going to fix inherent problems with your processes or culture. It’s also important to understand what various technology options actually do so you’re not disappointed by inflated claims.
Insufficient Network Access. IoT and other smart technologies require excellent network access to reach performance potential. If your network isn’t up to par, you’ll need to upgrade before you see the benefits.
Support. Digital transformation also requires significant IT support to keep everything connected and running smoothly. Do you have the personnel in-house to handle maintenance and training, or will you need to pay a third party to do that for you? This is another expense that you’ll have to budget for (and justify to decision makers).
Disaster Recovery Protocols. When you shift most of your data and operations online, you need to be prepared for worst-case scenarios like power outages or natural disasters. You may need to invest in disaster recovery software to protect your assets—another line item for your budget.
Data Migration. Your data is one of your most valuable assets, and if you lose it, you may be in serious trouble. Depending on how well your current system stores data, migrating to a new system may be costly and labor-intensive.
The bottom line is that before you decide to invest in a new system, it pays to conduct a thorough cost/benefit analysis so you’ll understand both the risks and the advantages of new software. Once you do that, you have three options:
1. Develop a whole new custom software solution
2. Upgrade your current system
3. Develop a new application to handle the most pressing needs
At Worthwhile, we will never push you to pay for innovation that you aren’t ready for or don’t need. What we will do is help you decide which of these options will give you the most benefit at the right time at the best cost. And once you’re ready to move forward, we will help you develop a system that improves ROI of the equipment you already have, increase your process efficiency, support customer service and sales, and reduce costs.
Are you ready to innovate in the new year? There’s no better time to get started.