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Digital Transformation in Manufacturing

Mark Flynn
Operations technology

Manufacturing is currently undergoing a digital revolution, one which will change the business environment in ways not seen since the inception of industrial manufacturing in the 18th century. In manufacturing, digitalisation is a major factor that contributes to increasing consumer expectations of technological advances and innovation pushes.

In addition countless businesses have realised the longterm value of Digital Transformation. If you are planning to embrace digitalisation in a similar way you will be able to benefit greatly from it.

Key Takeaways

  • The fourth industrial revolution is here. You can choose to be part of it or you can choose to be left behind. The choice is yours. For those manufacturing firms that adopt a digital mindset, the rewards will be many. For those who don't, the risk of being left behind sizeable.
  • Digital transformation in manufacturing is underpinned by 5 main pillars, Cloud Technology, Robotics & Automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Machine Learning (ML), Internet Of Things (IOT) and Data Analytics. These are proven solutions than when implemented correctly can pay serious dividends.
  • The road to achieving the potential benefits of digital transformation in manufacturing is not easy. With reports of over 70% of digital transformation initiatives failing to deliver on their intended benefits, it is easy to understand why many are reluctant to make the investment. However, with the right team, the right plan and the right support, successful digital transformation is assured.

Understanding Digital Transformation

Illustration of digital transformation

The digital transformation process demands an extensive re-evaluation of organisational operations, aiming to generate value and engage with stakeholders differently. It encompasses a broad and fundamental shift in how businesses approach and adapt to the digital landscape. It involves cross functional collaboration to embed technologies across the business to drive changes that increase efficiency and agility.

However, distinguishing among digitisation, digitalisation, and digital transformation is crucial; the former two are stages within the broader process, while the digital transformation process involves a more thorough integration of digital technology.

In the rapid-fire world of business, maintaining a competitive edge and securing long-term success hinges on digital transformation. By integrating innovation into business practices and maintaining a customer-centric approach, businesses remain technologically advanced and attuned to customer needs.

Digital transformation should involve representatives from every department within the organisation and be tightly coupled to the overall business objectives. Typically the key drivers for successful Digital Transformation, are:

  • Increased competition
  • Increased costs in raw material
  • Consumer expectation
  • Legislative changes (sustainability, traceability etc)
  • Labour costs & recruitment challenges
  • Cybersecurity fears

Manufacturing leaders that embrace digital transformation can expect to see the following benefits:

  • Improved operational efficiency
  • Enhanced cybersecurity
  • Better user experiences
  • Enhanced data collection
  • Stronger resource management
  • Data-driven customer insights

These benefits collectively contribute to a superior customer experience and competitive advantage.

The evolution of digital transformation in manufacturing

The evolution of manufacturing in the digital age, often referred to as Industry 4.0, represents a transformational shift from traditional practices to advanced digital operations. This journey began with the integration of digital computing technologies in the manufacturing process (Industry 3.0) and has since escalated into a full-fledged integration of cyber-physical systems into the manufacturing process.

At the heart of this evolution is the IOT, which connects machinery and workflows in unprecedented ways, enabling real-time data exchange and predictive analytics. This connectivity has paved the way for smart factories, where systems can monitor and make decisions autonomously, delivering enhanced efficiency and reducing downtime.

AI and ML have further propelled manufacturing into the digital age, optimising production processes through machine learning, predictive maintenance and quality control. Robotics, once simple programmable machines, are now collaborative robots (cobots) working alongside humans to enhance productivity and safety.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has revolutionised prototype development and small-batch production, allowing for faster innovation cycles and customisation. Digital twins—virtual replicas of physical systems—offer a powerful tool for simulation and optimisation, reducing development time and costs.

This digital manufacturing evolution has not only transformed how products are made but also how businesses operate, fostering a more agile, efficient, and customer-centric manufacturing industry. As digital technologies continue to advance, the boundaries of what's possible in manufacturing will expand, marking a new era of innovation and growth.

The Myth vs. Reality of Digital Transformation in the manufacturing industry

There's a common myth that digital transformation complicates manufacturing processes, adding layers of technology that seem daunting to traditional operations. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, embracing digital processes and tools simplifies operations, boosts efficiency, and enhances product quality. Holding onto traditional methods in a digital age is akin to sailing a rowboat in a speedboat race. It's time to disrupt this myth and steer towards a digitally empowered future.

Conversely, there is a belief that digital transformation in manufacturing, can be achieved quickly and with a minimum amount of input from the client company. Nothing can be further from the truth. Digital transformation in any industry, takes time, consistent effort and visionary leadership.

However with these attributes in place, digital transformation in manufacturing can pay serious dividends. Returns on successful digital transformation initiatives can be in the 100x range. We only need to look at the history of industries disrupted by digital technology, Retail (e-Commerce), Media (Social Media), Finance (e-Banking) to see the pros of getting digital transformation right, and the severe consequences of getting it wrong.

Digital technology changing the manufacturing landscape

Digital manufacturing landscape

The manufacturing landscape is undergoing a significant transformation, driven by the advent of digital tools that are making manufacturing processes more efficient, adaptable, and intelligent. As we delve deeper into the digital age, technologies such as Cloud Computing, the IoT, and AI are not just enhancing manufacturing processes but are reshaping the very fabric of the industry. Below are a list of digital capabilities to be considered to achieve digital transformation in manufacturing now.

Cloud Computing

Cloud technology has democratised access to powerful computing resources, enabling manufacturers of all sizes to leverage sophisticated software and analytics without the need for heavy upfront investments in IT infrastructure. This has opened up new possibilities for collaboration, data management, and scalability.

With cloud based systems, businesses can now streamline their supply chain management, enhance product lifecycle management, reduce maintenance costs, and foster innovation through more efficient research and development processes. The agility afforded by cloud solutions means manufacturers can quickly respond to market demands and operational challenges.

Many of the major cloud computing providers (Google, Amazon & Microsoft) have started to offer accelerators specific to the manufacturing industry. These accelerators allow manufacturing companies to avail of best practice industry solutions at a reduced time and cost. One of the best in our opinion is the Google Manufacturing Cloud.

Robotic and Automation

Robotics has been a cornerstone of manufacturing for decades, but the integration of digital technologies has significantly expanded their capabilities. Modern robots are more adaptable, capable of learning from their surroundings and working alongside humans as cobots (collaborative robots).

This not only boosts efficiency but also allows for greater flexibility in production lines, enabling the customisation of products without sacrificing speed or quality. A great example of modern Robotics and Automation is Figure AI.

Alongside robotics is Business Process Automation (BPA) or Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Digital tools that help to transform manual processes into digital processes. To achieve digital transformation in manufacturing both the back office and the factory floor must be considered when looking at automation.

Manufacturing companies that get automation right, will be rewarded for their digital transformation efforts by reducing costs and lead times.  

Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning

AI and ML are at the forefront of the digital transformation in manufacturing. These technologies can analyse vast amounts of data generated by connected devices to identify patterns, predict outcomes, and make informed decisions.

AI applications range from predictive maintenance and quality control to demand forecasting, supply chains, and inventory management. These innovations are helping to rethink traditional manufacturing processes. Moreover, AI-driven robots are collaborating with human workers to perform complex tasks, increasing productivity while reducing errors and improving safety.

These new digital technologies are helping the modern manufacturing business to rethink the manufacturing environment by identifying and removing waste.

Big data and analytics

Big Data and Analytics are revolutionising digital transformation in manufacturing, serving as the driving force behind the transition to smart factories. By harnessing the vast amounts of data generated by digital tools and IoT devices, these technologies convert overwhelming data streams into actionable insights.

This capability enables manufacturers to enhance operational efficiency, reduce waste, optimise energy consumption, improve product quality, and undertake predictive maintenance to minimise downtime and extend the life of machinery.

Furthermore, Big Data and Analytics significantly improve supply chain visibility, allowing for more effective inventory management and logistics optimisation. They also enable a deeper understanding of customer preferences, supporting the shift toward customised products and driving innovation.

Ultimately, the integration of Big Data and Analytics with digital manufacturing tools is leading the industry toward a future of efficiency, adaptability, and continuous innovation, where challenges can be anticipated and addressed more swiftly and precisely than ever before.

Internet of Things (IOT)

IOT or sometimes known as the industrial internet is at the heart of advanced manufacturing. IOT is a revolutionary concept that describes the network of physical objects—“things”—embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the internet.

For example, many manufacturing businesses have sensors embedded in their production line that give real time access as to the performance, availability and quality of their production. This data can be used to measure Overal Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and ultimately increase profit.

This is just one example of how interconnectivity enables objects to collect and share data without human intervention, opening up a realm of possibilities for smarter and more efficient operations across various sectors.

Methods for Achieving Digital Excellence

Methods for achieving digital excellence

Creating a Digital Roadmap

The journey for manufacturing companies begins with creating a digital transformation strategy with a comprehensive digital roadmap. This involves assessing current processes, identifying areas for improvement (often manual operations), and setting clear, achievable goals. A phased approach, starting with quick wins to demonstrate value, can help build momentum and secure buy-in from stakeholders. Get started by benchmarking your digital maturity using our digital scorecard.

Technology Selection

Key technologies such as IoT, AI, and robotics play pivotal roles in manufacturing digital transformation now. IoT devices offer real-time monitoring and predictive maintenance capabilities, AI provides insights for decision-making and process optimization, and robotics automate repetitive tasks, freeing up human workers for more complex activities. The integration of these technologies leads to a seamless, efficient manufacturing ecosystem.

Workforce Transformation

Equally important is the transformation of the workforce. Digital transformation requires a shift in skills, with a focus on digital literacy, data analysis, and the ability to work alongside advanced technologies. Offering training and development programs ensures that employees are equipped to thrive in a digitally enhanced workplace.

Overcoming Objections to Digital Transformation

transformation, digital, visualization

Addressing Cost Concerns

The initial investment in digital technologies can seem daunting. However, the long-term ROI—improved efficiency, reduced downtime, and enhanced product quality—far outweighs the upfront costs. Moreover, technology costs have decreased significantly, making digital tools more accessible to manufacturers of all sizes.

Managing Change Resistance

Change is often met with resistance. It's crucial to engage employees early in the process, clearly communicate the benefits of digital transformation, and involve them in decision-making. This inclusive approach helps cultivate a culture of innovation, adaptability and ultimately results in a unified digital strategy.

Managing Legacy systems

Managing legacy systems and addressing technical debt are critical challenges in the journey of digital transformation. The key to tackling these issues lies in a balanced approach that evaluates the business value of of the system against the benefits of new digital solutions.

Organisations should start by conducting a comprehensive audit of their existing IT infrastructure to identify which existing systems are critical to operations and those that can be retired or upgraded. Prioritising technical debt reduction is essential, focusing on areas that hinder agility or pose security risks.

Adopting an incremental approach to modernisation can be effective, such as wrapping existing systems with APIs to integrate them with newer technologies, which allows for gradual improvements without disrupting business operations. Simultaneously, fostering a culture of continuous learning and innovation within the IT team ensures that skills remain up-to-date and aligned with the latest digital practices.

Effective communication across departments about the digital transformation journey can also help in aligning business and IT strategies, ensuring a cohesive approach to overcoming the challenges posed by legacy systems and technical debt.

Mitigating Security Risks

Digital transformation introduces new cybersecurity risks. Best practices include conducting regular security assessments, implementing robust cybersecurity measures, and training employees on security protocols. By prioritizing cybersecurity, manufacturers can protect their digital infrastructure and safeguard sensitive data.

Actionable Steps Towards Digital Transformation

Actionable steps towards digital transformation

Starting Small

Begin with quick win projects that target specific areas for improvement. These small-scale initiatives allow you to test technologies, refine strategies, and demonstrate the value of digital transformation, building confidence and support for broader initiatives.

Typically candidate projects for quick wins often involve:

  • Training staff on existing systems
  • Adding a reporting layer on top of existing systems
  • Simplifying and enforcing exisitng business processes
  • Implement a quick win Software As A Service (SAAS) solution
  • Integrating one system with another to remove dual keying of information

These quick win solutions can deliver significant value to the business without having to go through a wholesale process transformation. Starting small builds mometum for any larger transformation programme.

Choosing the Right Strategic Partner

Selecting technology providers that understand the unique challenges of the manufacturing industry is crucial. Look for partners with a proven track record in implementing digital solutions in manufacturing settings. Their expertise and digital services can guide you through the complexities of digital transformation.

Embracing Continuous Learning and Adaptation

The digital landscape is ever-evolving, and staying competitive requires ongoing education, adaptation, and innovation. Encourage a mindset of continuous learning within your organization, and remain open to new technologies and methodologies that can further enhance your operations.

The Future of Manufacturing

The future of manufacturing is digital. As we move forward, manufacturers that embrace digital transformation will become the leading manufacturers - setting the bar in the way of innovation, efficiency, and competitiveness. The journey may seem challenging, but the rewards—increased productivity, improved product quality, and the ability to adapt to changing market demands—are well worth the effort.

Smart manufacturing represent the pinnacle of manufacturing and industrial innovation, integrating cutting-edge technologies such as IoT, AI, ML, big data analytics, and robotics. These factories harness digital connectivity to create highly efficient, automated, and self-optimising production environments.

Collecting and analysing vast amounts of data in real time results in smart manufacturing and the ability to predict maintenance needs, adapt to changes in production requirements, and optimise resource allocation. This results in significantly reduced downtime, increased productivity, and enhanced product quality.


The shift towards digital transformation in manufacturing is not just a trend but a strategic imperative for businesses aiming to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving industry. By debunking myths, embracing new technologies, and fostering a culture of innovation, manufacturers can unlock new levels of efficiency, productivity, and growth.

The future is digital, and the time to act is now. Take the first step towards digital transformation by evaluating your current processes, using new tools, consulting with experts, or attending a workshop on digital strategies for manufacturing. The path to revolutionising your manufacturing operations begins with embracing change and leveraging the power of digital technologies.