Implementing Innovation Processes in Globally-Connected Manufacturing Plants

By Alberto Martinez, CEO, Lantek 

The metal industry is in a transformation stage. Digital technologies are at the heart of this transition and are helping companies connect their factories worldwide. While there are many benefits like improved communications and process efficiencies, it won’t happen overnight. Applying new innovations to a global team requires new or revamped processes that translate across cultures.

The benefits of having connected factories is that company leaders have a global view of all their plants. Managers can see the entire production line and where products are in their production schedules. They can see if certain machines are down or causing bottlenecks.

With this broader view, they can see which plant can produce items most efficiently and cost effectively. Or, if there are delays, they can see what machines may be causing it and how it will impact the overall schedule.


Implementing Change Starts with Company Leadership

With the digital transformation, the keys to success in the manufacturing industry have shifted away from lowering costs to increasing efficiency and productivity. Company leaders are charged with moving their workers to these goals. Their role is crucial to the success of the company’s transition. To implement these changes and new processes, there are certain areas where they need to focus.


Developing Long Term Plans

Leadership needs to develop their long-term plan and goals. Where do they want to be in five years? How will customer needs change in that time? Once they know their goals, they need to lay out their plan to get there. This includes defining the steps to transform their company by incorporating new technologies. They need to understand how incorporating these new tools will allow them to better serve customers. This includes anticipating advances in the future and how they’ll need to continually adapt to take advantage of them.

Smaller companies especially tend to plan only for the short term. They need to expand their thinking beyond the next few weeks or months. This means planning for the resources they’ll need – time, money, employees, etc.


Out Front and Center

How management shares this plan with their workers will set the tone for their success. It’s not a simple email explaining the new company direction. They have to be out in front leading by example. Help the workers understand why they need to make changes in the processes and work habits. Employees need to buy in and that will only happen if the managers are encouraging them every step of the way.

Empower and inspire workers. Set milestones with rewards to keep workers on the right track so they don’t revert back to old habits. Show the successes that result to keep everyone motivated.


Provide and Encourage Continuous Learning

One of the biggest obstacles in making the digital transformation is the much-talked-about “skills gap.” Current workers need training to acquire new skills do things like program and run new machines and robots, as well as capture, analyze and utilize data.

Companies need to know how to transition their workers to these new roles. Employee training is a crucial component. Besides in-person training, they can use tools like webinars and GoToMeeting to reach more workers at once in multiple factories. For areas that companies aren’t able to train, there are online classes and resources, university programs and, in some cases, country-funded training and education.

While workers need to be open to the changes, leaders need make sure they’re communicating effectively and encouraging them. Offer incentives for completing training programs. Make it part of their overall employee development. Companies can’t realize the benefits of Industry 4.0 without people to do the work.


Attract New Talent

Along with helping to train current workers, companies are going to need new employees. The benefits of bringing in new workers, especially those that are only a few years into their career or less, is that they are ingrained in the digital world. They’ve lived with it their entire life. Maneuvering in a constantly connected world is second nature to them.

With a globally connected company, leaders are able to recruit workers from almost anywhere. They can expand the diversity of their team to include new ideas and experiences. But, one of the biggest problems companies face in recruiting is that they aren’t known enough.

They need to build their reputation as a place where people want to work. They need to build their brand and actively market themselves to these new workers. It becomes a marketing challenge that companies need to solve.


Idea Sharing and Collaboration

Globally-connected factories open up opportunities for better collaboration and idea sharing. New points of view can spur innovations that wouldn’t have been possible before. Some questions they can explore include:

  • What makes a plant in one country more productive than in another country?
  • Are there cultural differences that can be shared in other areas to help them improve?
  • Are they including all of the departments impacted by a particular change or new process?

Part of implementing processes for better collaboration includes making sure everyone understands them. There may be language barriers and cultural differences to work through. It’s common that most companies require workers to speak English. That helps keep everyone on the same page.

Communication is key to making sure everyone understands goals, objectives and processes. Online tools (ERP, CRM, etc.) allow digital sharing of files that employees can access anywhere, including real time updates. With mobile phones and email, workers are more accessible than ever before.

Change in companies is always hard. But by focusing on the items above, company leaders can set themselves up for success. Companies that make the transition to digitally-connected factories will have advantages over those that wait. Use these recommendations to start now.

About the Author

Alberto Martinez is CEO of Lantek, a company in the development, commercialization and integration of management software solutions (CAD/CAM, MES, ERP, Advanced Manufacturing) for the global sheet metal industry. Martinez teaches mechanical engineering and Business Administration to Masters students at Industrial Engineers University of Bilbao (2012 – 2017) and Deusto University of Bilbao (2014 – 2017).


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