The Digital Plant: Key Opportunities for the Manufacturing Industry



Digital plant. The fourth industrial revolution. Industry 4.0. Digital disruption. Mobile-driven revolution.

Whatever you call it, the manufacturing industry is undergoing a major change. According to a recent survey, nearly four out of five manufacturers are expecting digital disruption to drive major change in the next three years. While some subsegments and companies see the play as an opportunity to renew customer engagement efforts leveraging contextual, personalized applications and more nuanced data analytics, our research indicates the more profitable strategy is the digital plant.

What is the digital plant? It’s a fully connected, flexible and data-driven network to drive the highest efficiency from assets, people and processes. Instead of the one-off applications, the digital plant drives a full plant portfolio of mobile and digital applications. Every asset and every person have their own data attached to them, which fit inside a larger data ecosystem. The key here is the integration of the entire plant, from unlocking the data in the ERP system with a modernization to deploying RFID tracking on all materials as they move through the production line.

One of the major benefits of full digitalization is improving the ability to forecast and plan for change. Digital plants have a “digital twin,” or a clone of the data and performance metrics for all of the assets in the plant, which allows the team to test and measure the impact of changes or new processes. It’s simulation without limits.

The other major ROI driver for the digital plant stems from one of the biggest profit killers for manufacturers: maintenance.  Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) is a framework to determine the most cost-effective maintenance practices for each asset by weighing its functional significance to the system and examining the data on its (and similar assets’) failure and maintenance history. The potential savings for businesses are huge: two researchers found that implementing an RCM program at a utility company reduced maintenance costs by 30 to 40 percent. After use by the aviation industry in the 1960s, its benefits have now caught on with companies of all types, including utility plants, theme parks and manufacturing facilities.

Data plays a huge role in RCM strategy, powered by the ability of companies to integrate multiple data sources into one seamless dashboard for employees and communicating actionable insights from that data to the right devices for employees. The result: A reduction in labor costs, asset downtime and catastrophic failures, along with ultimately increasing the efficiency and ROI of plant assets and reducing failure sources.


Strategy and Definition Ideal for
Reactive: Maintenance technicians focus on running items to failure. No monitoring is required. Only non-critical assets. This asset will fail during operations; keep safety risks for employees and spare part availability in mind.
Preventative: Parts are replaced on a fixed, time-based schedule. Assets that have an established failure pattern. This may lead to unnecessary replacements and larger inventory costs.
Predictive/Condition-Based: Assets are monitored for conditions indicating failure is likely to occur. Assets that are relatively simple systems where a small set of conditions can reliably predict failure.
Proactive:  Assets are monitored for conditions, and diagnosed for possible causes of failure. Assets that are critical to the business functioning. This takes a large upfront investment in data analysis and diagnostic modeling.


For lean manufacturing practitioners, here are five wastes that the digital plant directly reduces:


  1. Motion. Searching for another technician on the shop floor. Checking email at the desk and heading over to the shop floor to gather data. Stopping at the dispatch office for a call list. These are all examples of motion waste that mobility can solve. The right mobile app provides the information and connections your employees need-- in their pocket.
  2. Waiting. Mobile apps allow you to synchronize your processes and eliminate waiting waste between production steps. As materials move through the production line, RFID scanning integration can alert the people and equipment in the next production step and provide a seamless connection between the two steps. Mobile visualization of your production floor and equipment can also increase successful and quick changeovers between products because your managers will make better decisions with more information about how these changeovers will happen.
  3. Overproduction. To reduce overproduction waste, you have to reduce the causes of the waste. If you’re producing too much or too quickly, you are missing a communications link between your processes (and the data from those processes) and your people. Deploy a mobile app that uses advanced pattern detection and analytics to forecast customers’ demand and take action for production levels on the shop floor. You need to gain full visibility into the capacity utilization of your plant and tighten your demand projections to eventually shorten your cash-to-cash cycle.  
  4. Over-processing. How often have you walked onto the shop floor and noticed that technicians were not using the best practices and techniques not explicitly stated in the manual? You’re seeing over-processing waste where employees and processes are not working in the most efficient way possible. Instead of trusting that employees will use the efficient techniques outlined for them, remind them to do so with a mobile application with near-field communication and bluetooth low energy beacons to describe the efficient techniques to employees as soon as they approach a machine.
  5. Defects. The product goes through the production line, but fails the quality assurance test or, even worse, makes it to a customer who you have now lost. Integrating mobility into your predictive maintenance strategy means that employees can see a push notification wherever they are, and also means the difference between maintenance happening within a few minutes of downtime or a few hours. After the product has moved through the line, your quality control process takes over, and now requires stacks of paperwork and manual data entry. What if the quality control forms were available on a mobile device and populated the identification information for the product automatically? How much time (and labor costs) would that save?

Find out how to drive these and more changes in our latest ebook on the digital transformation revolution in the industry, as well as subscribing to our blog for more posts in our Digital Plant series.

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