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Industry 4.0: How to make the digital shift in your business

Introducing digital technology does not mean you have to turn your company into a high-tech start-up. Here are simple tips you can use to get started.

5-minute read

Digital technologies are now more affordable, user-friendly and robust than ever before. They’re also accessible to businesses of all sizes. A BDC study, for instance, found that 39% of Canadian small and mid-sized manufacturers already implemented Industry 4.0 projects, while another 17% of businesses have started planning to do so.

If you’re among those who still haven’t started, here’s what you can do to start making the digital shift in your business.

Map your processes and the flow of information

According to BDC Business Consultant Stéphane Chrusten, implementing Industry 4.0 projects is all about asking the right questions.

“Ask yourself: How am I doing things right now? What results am I aiming for? What’s the gap with what I have today?” Chrusten says. “Many entrepreneurs find that they don’t have the right processes in place to support the technology. They need to change the way things are done before they select a new technology.”

Chrusten says that an extensive process mapping can help identify bottlenecks and production issues that need to be resolved before digital technologies can be brought in. It will also help identify opportunities where technology can be used to improve the right process.

In parallel, Chrusten advises most entrepreneurs to create an information flow diagram, which maps out how information flows from order taking, to production and final delivery.

“Ideally, we want the information that’s recorded when the order is taken to be used throughout the process,” he says. “Often, that information isn’t in the business operation system or in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, or it has to be entered manually and connected with other built-in applications. This results in the poor use of resources and can generate mistakes across the value chain, sometimes even impacting clients.”

Focus on customer needs

Not every customer is looking for the same thing. In some sectors the focus is on quality or ease of use, while in others, price supersedes all other factors. Your choice of technology should be driven by the motivations of your customers and some of your operational pain points.

Remember that the final goal of Industry 4.0 projects is to enhance your capacity to deliver value to your customers.

For instance, a manufacturer that uses tracking technologies to provide fast and accurate deliveries to its customers will be more successful than competitors that cannot. Meanwhile, 3-D printing technology can be used to provide faster delivery for clients that want to reduce delays when developing new products—this has the benefit of reducing overall costs as well.

“What matters to clients can be enhanced by technology,” says Chrusten. “It goes beyond nice and fancy add-ons; it’s about the extra value you are able to provide.”

Make strategic choices

Taking account of your customers’ focus as well as the digital maturity of your equipment and computer systems, you’ll be able to create a technology roadmap that tells you what technology holds the most potential for your business.

If you do a high volume business, for instance, using sensors to gather data on your production line probably makes a lot of sense.

It is often valuable to integrate your technology implementation plan into a broader productivity enhancement program. Adopting operational efficiency best practices and a culture of continuous improvement are key to a successful digital transformation.

“You’ll want to ensure the foundation of efficiency is there, no matter what digital technology you choose,” says Chrusten. “If the processes are not aligned, if the organization isn’t set up to support performance, then you will only see a glimpse of what technology can do to help.”

Empower your employees

BDC’s Industry 4.0 survey shows that access to skilled employees is the main challenge facing technology adopters. Another key challenge is employees’ resistance to change. Therefore, your ability to hire skilled staff and manage your team effectively when introducing new technology will be a key factor affecting your success.

One key factor is that you involve your employees early on. They should understand your vision for the company as well as how it will affect their jobs. An open and honest discussion about the technology will help lessen concerns and get the staff excited about the new direction the company is taking.

You also need to offer the appropriate training for employees who will be using the new technology.

Chrusten says that old-fashioned training methods are still relevant today. He gives the example of the Training Within Industry (TWI) program that was created in the 1940s. In this method, the instructor breaks down the steps of the operation and then does the operations over several cycles while explaining the key points. The learner then does the job under coaching until he or she can do it alone and is certified.

Go step by step

One of the worst mistakes businesses can make is to implement all the different Industry 4.0 technologies at the same time—or too fast without appropriate analysis. Successful businesses start with small projects to build skills, iron out problems and prove return on investment.

Going paperless, for example, is one of the easiest and cheapest digital technologies you can implement. It also has the benefit of being able to save you time and money.

You can also consider connecting your equipment to capture information measuring key performance indicators as part of a daily management system and continuous improvement program.

Get external help

In spite of their increasing ease of use, digital technologies remain complex and can be difficult to put in place.

Working with external expertise can help you map out your processes, choose the technology that’s right for you and train your employees.

“Businesses should have the chance to work with someone who has experience implementing these technologies,” says Chrusten. “Many people think that buying that one piece of equipment will fix all their problems, but they haven’t necessarily identified the right problem, and they forget that they have to support the equipment purchase with training, for example. Working with someone who has done this before will help you avoid these pitfalls.”

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