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Digital Manufacturing: 6 ways to build strong bonds between Technology Providers & Manufacturers

Updated: Jan 4

A Team Leader in a. factory using SempaiGuide - a digital skills toolkit

"Bridging the gap between Industry 4.0 vendors & manufacturers"

As an unintended consequence of my lean work I’ve spent the last 2 years advising clients on where digital manufacturing might add value. Might is the word to ponder in the previous sentence. For example, I’ll encourage a client to run an experiment to test a simple hypothesis like “will Augmented Reality (AR) help us to standardise maintenance skills on our tricky A type machines to reduce lost time”. This is a pretty different framing to “let’s see if AR works in maintenance”

By accident I’ve found myself acting as a matchmaker between Industry 4.0 vendors and manufacturing clients. This journey has taken me to Germany, Japan, the US & around the UK, bridging the gap in understanding between Industry4.0 vendors and their manufacturing customers. I’ve grappled with both parties in the fields of AR/VR, Big Data, AI, EyeMovement Tracking, 360 degree shop-floor mapping & low-code.

The value of Digital Manufacturing solutions

I fundamentally believe that well designed experiments with Industry4.0 solutions have the ability to generate significant value in manufacturing, but I suspect that the learning curve will be painful.

In all honesty, as far as the tech goes, I’m an enthusiastic amateur and my thoughts are still forming on where exactly Industry 4.0 will deliver value in manufacturing. Currently, I mostly describe the digital solutions market as being a little like Cosmo’s. Cosmo is a buffet-of-the-world chain restaurant in the UK where you can graze on a multitude of cuisines from around the world in one sitting. This grazing sounds interesting but makes it tough to fully appreciate a single cuisine and can lead to digestive issues.

6 tips to find the right Digital Manufacturing solutions

My skill, for good or ill, is a clarity of purpose and a diagnostic ability. What follows below are 6 points of reflection; 3 things vendors need to get better at complimented by another 3 for manufacturers.


1. Stop taking the “Whaddyawant?, yep we can do that” approach. The best use of your expertise is to act like a Doctor rather than a Pharmacist.

2. However wedded you are to the beauty of your product, fall in love with their problems not your solution. “Look at our baubles, aren’t they shiny” is no good to manufacturers.

3. A generalised understanding of manufacturing leads to vanilla solutions – like a Doctor prescribing aspirin for everything. There are repeating patterns to be sure but every factory is different.

A solution to these?: Don’t just answer the email and agree to go on site without qualifying that the manufacturer has something tangible to show and tell about pain and/or gain. Once in, understand the product & process beyond a cursory glance.


4. The other half of point 1. above. Be clear about the specific Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost and People (SQDCP) capability gap you’re looking to address & be prepared to walk and talk it on the shopfloor.

5. Raise your expectations of vendors & act like an engaged but assertive Customer. It’s not their fault (vendors) it’s ours (manufacturing sector). If we don’t ‘pull’ the right approach, they’ll naturally ‘push’ whatever their understanding is. It’s our responsibility as a manufacturing sector to set expectations and educate Industry 4.0 vendors on how to engage with us usefully.

6. Open the kimono to the vendor. Sure you’ve got IP to protect but if you’re too precious about showing them the issues they’ll have to guess. Many vendors are good but they’re rarely blessed with psychic ability.

A solution to these?: Have a specific reason why you want to try a certain digital solution before making external contact. When the vendor comes on site, take ‘em directly to the shopfloor straight after shaking hands (before any demo of shiny baubles). At the very worst the subsequent demonstration in the conference room will be better informed.

2 things to bear in mind about Digital Manufacturing solutions

A digital manufacturing solution picture - a person holding a tablet up to a process in a factory

To finish, here are two things (one each) that vendors and manufacturers needs to stop doing as a matter of urgency:

(a) A number of MANUFACTURERS have locked onto Industry 4.0 solutions as a new silver bullet to solve Quality & Productivity issues. It isn’t, there is no shortcut to Operational Excellence. Visualising a specific issue earlier or isolating a useful variable are great, BUT you still gotta do something about it. People and tech are complimentary, not substitutes.

In terms of people, the question we're fundamentally asking is "Will we still need people in our automated factories of the future? (spoiler alert, "yes")

(b) From the VENDOR side I heard the following two comments in presentations at the Liverpool event last week. Our product… “allows you to drive the operator to do the right things” & “allows those lower down to perform better”

Jeez, where to start. It’s a lazy dog whistle sales approach that says to senior manufacturing people “don’t worry, you’ll eventually be able to run the factory sat on your arse, dishing out orders to underlings to fix the issues that pop up on your screen”. Conversations with Toyota and others have led me to conclude a smarter way to look at this.

As with so much in Lean and manufacturing, the magic happens at “show me” not “tell me”. I’ve had to use my hard earned lean diagnostic ability to guide my manufacturing clients and vendors to useful discussion places on the shopfloor. Take time to grasp the product and process as this is where specific possibilities, potential proofs of concepts and prototype activities come into clear focus.

In my opinion, what we need are hybrid animals who have a lean & shopfloor understanding PLUS a full appreciation of what the tech could do in a future roadmap sense. Throw in a healthy dose of lean start-up MVP thinking and you’ll not go far wrong. Before you invest any time or money understand the differences between a Proof-of-concept, a prototype, a minimum viable product (MVP) and a roadmap.

Oh and a hat tip to Spotify for the chart below visualising this path. Do the bottom one, not the top one.

Spotify's approach to lean start-up principles

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