The Crucial Element Digitalisation Ignores
In the much-publicised march towards the digitalisation of manufacturing, one very important element is routinely ignored, namely how to integrate the digital sharp end with back office systems that traditionally have relied on paper.
Dominic Fahy explains how that can be achieved.
If you were looking for examples of predictions going wrong, you need look no further than an issue of Business Week in 1975. The magazine said that the paperless office would, by 1990, render paper in business pretty much obsolete.
Of course, as most of us will know, far from being dealt a mortal blow by the digital revolution, paper use in business actually doubled over the past 20 years of the 20th century.
Why? There were inevitably some who simply didn’t trust information unless they could physically touch it. But there was also the incredible complexity created by the number of different touch points business administration demands.
Think of the multiplicity of suppliers into a business of any size, many of them still using paper invoices. Government regulators, lawyers, you name it – how on earth was a business supposed to amalgamate all this onto a paperless Nirvana? Of course, it was impossible.
Fast forward to the present day, when digital technologies are transforming manufacturing processes and supply chain communication. Has paper given up the unequal struggle and disappeared?
Far from it, although it is telling that smaller businesses have made the transition away from paper in the back-office far faster than large ones, some of whom find the challenge of corralling all that paper-based communication and merging it with the rest of the company’s information flows too daunting.
One company that did face up to the challenge was British Steel. An aging legacy IT system spread over 20 sites was replaced with an integrated document and print infrastructure, bringing much greater certainty and predictability to its business.
British Steel discovered that, far from being a painful process, the upgrade of its back-office systems was smooth, providing reliable new solutions that will transform the way staff work across the business.
It is not just the complexity of the integration issue, or even legacy attitudes to technology, that has kept paper alive. It is the very nature of what a paper document does. It brings together specific information and data that, for the main part, requires personalization, in a way that a data stream cannot possibly achieve.
But this should not be an argument against completing the march towards paperless processes in the back-office. It just means we need to change the way we approach it.
It means preserving the concept of the document, but in a highly flexible digital form, while focusing on the technologies that create a seamless flow between the manufacturing management systems and the administrative function, in such a way that efficiency is enhanced from one end of the business to the other.
It means introducing document management systems whose APIs hook into ERP and other management systems, to allow important documents to be at our digital fingertips no matter where we are in the factory, or the world, on our mobiles or desktops.
And if we need our documents to achieve paper form, then we simply print them. Do not underestimate the continuing power of paper: it is estimated that hardcopy documents achieve a 30% better return than electronic when it comes to marketing.
It is possible to have the best of both worlds. Indeed, trying to remove paper entirely from the scene can be counter-productive, as many manufacturing working practices benefit from its tactile nature.
For example, the highest accuracy in 2D and 3D CAD design and modelling processes is achieved in printed form, as a digital representation is only as accurate as the number of display pixels.
Also, decisive, accurate and efficient collaborative design processes are far easier to achieve when working with a tangible large format output. And I don’t believe there will ever be a way to dispense with printed signage, which offers huge benefits to branding and promotional activities.
The benefits associated with advanced communication strategies and digitised document management are legion: enhanced customer service, training, planning, and employee engagement (particularly among tech-savvy millennials) all add up to financial savings and a happier business that has a much better grasp of its internal realities at every level.
If you factor in the ability to digitally trace the document flow as well as managing access and print rights, then security is enhanced and IP protected. Document handling is just part of the overall way that imaging and communication technologies are revolutionising business processes.
R&D prototyping using 3D printing has been radically changed in terms of speed, cost and environmental impact.
If you are embarked on the digitalisation journey at the production end of your business, it is therefore important that you look at the entire business in the round. The digital transformation of paper processes enables companies to become more profitable, and grow, by making business-critical information secure, easy to find and simple to extract valuable insight from.
In addition, processes become simpler, mobile-enabled and less subject to latency, a far cry from the days when business critical information may have been stored on a piece of paper, in an in-tray, a filing cabinet, a scan, a CD, a shared drive, or Enterprise Content Management system. Anywhere, except where it was supposed to be.
Just imagine if your decision makers could sign purchase orders, clear product designs or approve invoices from anywhere, on any device, and with complete security. You could be spending more time with customers while simultaneously keeping the back office productive and your suppliers happy.