Digital Transformation

Creating a manufacturing sector that is smarter, sustainable and self-sufficient

Alexandra Baleta, Sr. Director EMEA Industry & Manufacturing / Automotive Lead, VMware

Manufacturing is the engine of everyday life. It feeds us, transports us and is the foundation for the items we interact with on a daily basis. But around the world, manufacturers face significant challenges as they attempt to innovate new products and services while looking to grow in new markets –  all while mostly still working on brownfield environments and partially outdated  operational technology (OT).

The solution to overcoming today’s challenges and creating a platform for sustainable future growth is digital transformation. While far from a new concept, it enables manufacturers  to meet these challenges head-on and drive long-term growth – all with resilience, sustainability, agility, and security built-in at every stage. However, even with all eyes on the prize, the path to getting there is far from straight-forward, which is what this two-part blog series will examine.

A high-wire tightrope walk

The pandemic was the biggest stress-test the manufacturing sector has ever seen. The global economy was (is) connected, 24/7 and borderless so, to close it down in disparate parts and at differing times while forcing staff to work remotely was the ultimate resiliency test.  It proved the sector must be resilient no matter what comes along. This is the base-line of expectation that drives operational efficiency today.

But the manufacturing sector is built on years of legacy and an interconnected network of old machinery. This is a considerable challenge as each manufacturer attempts to plot a way through the labyrinth of evolving existing equipment in lockstep with solutions that are faster, more efficient and increasingly environmentally-friendly. This all has to be achieved with limited disturbance to daily operations and simply sprinting to the objective is not the answer. There is a huge amount of risk involved in shifting legacy hardware too quickly if it is not ready or designed to do so.

For manufacturers, it’s the equivalent of a high-wire tightrope walk and balancing act all at the same time.

Glue to bind old and new

Traditionally, factories have been equipped with machine or process-specific, dedicated hardware, requiring specialist admin know-how and considerable effort around set-up, changes, and patching. It is the complexity and legacy mix in OT that is typically holding them back from moving faster to the next level through modernising and digitizing operations. What manufacturers are missing is the glue to bind the old and new. The ability to combine the hardware from an individual machine-level all the way up to cloud-based software and with the option to choose the most suitable option depending on where specific workloads need to run.

Following the huge adoption we have seen in cloud computing, combined with relatively easy-to-deploy innovations like sensors and other IoT solutions, we’re reaching a point where it is possible to virtualise OT on the factory floor. This gives manufacturers the benefits of being able to move faster, update quicker and manage changes easier without having to rip and replace each piece of equipment. The outcome means each manufacturer has a choice in the platform they use, rather than being tied into one supplier.

Example: Audi

Audi is a great example. It aspires  to be the first manufacturer in the world to turn to these kinds of centralized server solutions in cycle-dependent production. Gerd Walker, Member of the Board of Management of AUDI AG Production and Logistics recently said, “we used to have to buy hardware when we wanted to introduce new functions. With Edge Cloud 4 Production, we only buy applications in the form of software. That is the crucial step toward IT-based production.”

A quantum leap for skills

But in solving one challenge, the sector is apt to run into another – access to skills. Since forever, manufacturers have relied on people’s knowledge, experience and ability honed over years to operate machinery. Moving to something that’s software-defined isn’t just a chasm, but a quantum leap. These are skills most manufacturers don’t have. They were trained as engineers, not software developers. Much like the machines themselves, simply parachuting in talent with the skills required today isn’t the fix as they are as alien to the old world as the existing employees are to the new.

The Make UK ‘Skills 2030 Closing the gap’ report found that manufacturers lack access not just to the long-term skills they need in their business – increasingly at a higher technical level, and with a growing focus on areas such as leadership and management as well as those technical occupations across the production line – but also to the labour they need right now to fulfil orders and continue their operations. The same report also found that 36% of vacancies in manufacturing are proving hard-to-fill because applicants lack the appropriate skills with an estimated cost of lost productivity due approximately £21 million a day in lost output for UK GDP. In Sage’s ‘Digital Britain’ research, learning the necessary skills for new technology (33%) was found to be the biggest barrier preventing manufacturers from adopting new technology.

Staggering pace of change

No matter the progress made to date, every business in the manufacturing sector needs to be smarter, sustainable and self-sufficient. The pace of change is such that standing still means going backwards. Quickly.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing the impact of war, natural disasters and other unforeseen challenges so being able to prepare for uncertainty should be at the top of every manufacturer’s mind. Doing so requires the consolidation of hardware as much as possible to operate smarter and more efficiently, which is what the second piece in this series will explore. It will also include examples of businesses leading the way in demonstrating what a software-defined future means for manufacturing.

For more information on how VMware can help or to see examples of how we have helped our customers on this journey, please visit us here at Keep the world moving, no matter what. Otherwise, stay tuned for part two.


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