t Digital Transformation process highlights need for data strategy - Plant & Works Engineering

Digital Transformation process highlights need for data strategy

Published:  20 October, 2021

The seventh Talking Industry discussion attempted to explore what could be done to further evangelise the benefits of digitally transformative concepts to improve efficiency and competitive perspective and to define more clearly concepts such as IIoT, Industry 4.0 Smart Factory, Digital Twins, Machine Learning, Analytics and AI. Andy Pye provides this summary review.

As always, the discussion is guided by live questions from attendees, but let’s start with a disclaimer and define digitisation and digitalisation. Digitisation just means converting something into a digital format and usually refers to encoding data or documents. Digitalisation means converting business processes to use digital technologies, as opposed to analogue or offline systems.

The scene was set by Prof Sam Turner. As a CTO of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, a network of manufacturing innovation centres in the UK.

HVM Catapult has seven centres, around 4000 people and over £1 billion of assets. “There are factory-like facilities, working in manufacturing innovation, and a network of test beds where we can bring in technology, test it and demonstrate the risks and benefits. And digitalisation is a huge part of that,” explained Prof Turner.

He continued: “At the design stage, how can we use digital tools at the outset to optimise the digital thread? This starts a thought process about breaking down barriers between design and manufacturing and in-service performance. So, if we can gather data from manufacturing performance or in-service performance and relate it back to design, we can start to enhance the productivity of the assets we’re designing.”

Prof Turner referred to the need to build netzero supply chains, another area where many manufacturers are struggling with where to start. “There is a huge role for digital tools in capturing ‘single-source-of-truth’ data around, for example, the embodied emissions in materials coming into manufacturing via the supply chain and how to report factory emissions. “

Finally, he said, while robotics, AI and machine learning techniques are the means, the crucial starting point is how we create clean data and start to derive value from it.


One key area is creating a digitalisation roadmap. Bill Killick (HMS Industrial Networks) emphasised that we are not talking digital improvement, but a total digital transformation - perhaps the key concept is not digital at all, but a business transformation using digital building blocks.

Because his company does protocol-toprotocol conversions and dashboarding data into the cloud, his experience is dealing with mid-level engineers and process designers. “Although there are countless examples of massive success led by senior management, the point at which a company will adopt digital transformation is when their awareness of the benefits exceeds the pain of going through the process! It is also valuable to benchmark yourself with your competitors and with other industry sectors.

“I don’t have top-level strategic discussions with business leaders. In my world at the midlevel, many have the digital vision, but they can’t affect the total chain. Instead, they try to anticipate what the business strategy will be coming down from the top and solve an immediate problem using a digital building block that they know will comply with the business transformation strategy once it happens!”

Which is where the digital roadmap comes in. Our second Sam T is Sam Thiara (MCS Control Systems). MCS builds control systems, control panels and motor control centres for virtually every industry sector. To encourage the adoption of a company-wide digital vision, he advocates the use of a roadmap. “We have identified in our own manufacturing business the need to improve our digitalisation processes and we now look to support our customers in that journey,” he said. “In a manufacturing business, some digital transformation initiatives don’t always work that well, because business executives do not really know what to do, or which steps to take first.”

“If followed correctly, a roadmap will provide benefits beyond just fixing things that might solve a small problem, but which do not actually transform the whole business,” Sam Thiara explained. He is available for discussions and consultancy on how to construct a viable digital roadmap.

Keith Atkinson (Weidmuller) agreed: “Weidmuller has found that its relationship with customers has evolved from being a supplier of connectors to a consultancy on digitalisation. Within this consultative approach, the journey starts with defining a digital workflow, starting with from digitisation of the initial design process. A key aspect is how to bridge the worlds of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT).”

“You have to have a strategy for both topdown and bottom-up data flow,” he said. “The UK process industry has historically been very conservative, but to improve their competitiveness, and to increase their diagnostic coverage, a large amount of data is being driven from the top down, much of it focussing around asset management. We are engaging with asset managers, people we have never engaged with before.”

Legacy machines

A related area is how to incorporate legacy systems into a digitalisation manufacturing factory. While it is uncommon to build a new factory from scratch, many plants incorporate machines which are 40 years old or more.

“Mostly, companies are making do with the machines they already have,” said Michael Lefeuvre (Red Lion) who specialises in linking legacy machines to digital networks. “When you go into the field, many manufacturers are not at the digital level. It’s a good target, but still a dream!

“Creating the first digitalisation stone often involves connecting old machines. Such a machine may be central to the whole operation, because it does something unique and cannot be replaced. The primary objective is how to collect very basic data, when such a machine does not have any communication technology on board, not even a PLC. It is also important to consider cybersecurity, because legacy machines, even though they may be connected into the network, are not capable of handling their own security.

“The biggest challenge of connecting such machines into a digital network is not the technology, because collecting and processing basic input and output signals is relatively straightforward. It is more the strategic issue of data sharing. Often, senior executives they don’t think about the data needs of the shop floor, to assist with how well or badly production is going and how that might be used. Again, a well-designed roadmap will help with planning.”

“IT systems are often designed for the management or top-level levels in the company, with nothing for the shop floor,” continues Michael Lefeuvre. “But while senior management needs to have a vision of where they want to go, operators also need to be able to use data on the shop floor to optimise production. But for that you need to make a connection between the shop floor and the data, and there is often no such connection. It’s always bottom up.”

Readers can listen to the discussion as it evolved by accessing the on-demand version by visiting the Talking Industry website: https://talkingindustry.org/


Professor Sam Turner - Chief Technology Officer, High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult

Keith Atkinson - Automation Sales Engineer - Weidmuller UK

Bill Killick - Technical Key Account Manager – HMS industrial Networks

Michael LeFeuvre - Regional Product Manager - Red Lion Controls

Sam Thiara - UK Sales Director - MCS Control Systems

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