Innovation blog part 2: The balance between process improvement and a coherent digital infrastructure

20 August 2017

About the author

Hans WortmannHans Wortmann is a full professor in the department of Operations at the University of Groningen, specialized in manufacturing information systems and innovation management. Next to this academic work, Hans contributes to Mobina and is chairman of the Lean Management Network Foundation.

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This is the second article in a series of three blogs about innovation in the manufacturing industry. The first blog post described the balance between technology push and strategic vision. Next Monday a blog will be published about innovation as exploration versus innovation as implementation in the current organization.

Innovation in the manufacturing industry is usually initiated when opportunities arise to improve the physical production processes. Management or employees think about production technology and try to improve this. Problem areas are identified and investments are made to improve these. These investments can be in areas like quality, maintenance, switching, supply of products to the shop floor, etc. The warehouse or processes like order acceptance and billing can also be problem areas. When trying to tackle these problems, mostly this results in more automation. However, this automation is often ad hoc and is gradually introduced in the company.

Next to this focus on problem areas, the IT department often has a focus on the (overall) digital infrastructure. The basic assumption is that a digital infrastructure is needed to make the company and its production durable. This can be achieved by integrating business processes (like offered by ERP), but also by digital product records on the shop floor connected to all machines and transport transactions. This is the promise of manufacturing execution system (MES).

Interfaces between systems are essential for integrated digital product recordsInterfaces between systems are essential for integrated digital product records

Investment decisions are usually based on a business case, with savings or profits weighed against the costs. It is often easier to create a positive business case for investments in process improvement than for investments in the digital infrastructure. Therefore, production companies often invest more in process improvement than in the digital infrastructure, like MES. This leads to a lot of automation islands in different parts of the company, without contributing to real digital product records. These islands are often not connected through bridges (interfaces), and are also not developed from one viewpoint on the digital records.

Over the course of time companies discover that many elements for automation are already available in the company, but are incoherent and not integrated. This limits the further growth of the digital product records and the integral usage of data for quality assurance, compliance, traceability, etcetera. To solve this, investments are often made in the digital infrastructure, but by then a lot of work has to be redone to embed the existing automation islands in the new infrastructure.

Digital infrastructure in Mobina

Mobina has a strong focus on processes and improving them. The digital infrastructure is prominently integrated in the application. You can use Mobina to identify how processes are supported by different applications in the information landscape. We also emphasize the importance of exchanging information between different processes and divisions, and you can use our application to explicitly establish the needed information.

Next to the alignment between processes and the digital infrastructure, our application helps to develop a vision on the most fundamental parts of the infrastructure. These parts are described in ‘business’ language in our so-called critical aspects. This stimulates the whole company to think about the future of subjects that have a large impact on IT, and makes your information landscape prepared for the future.

Therefore, it is good to start with a final architecture early in the process of industrial innovation, making space for the desired functionality. Standards for data and data exchange are needed to establish the expectations of the digital environment.

This leads to the need for a vision on the entire architecture in which the role of the digital infrastructure becomes clear. The management of the company and the IT-department can lay down their desires in such an architecture with regard to innovation in the company. Support from the top of the organization is essential for such an architecture. For every innovation or process improvement, the company should also invest to realize the entire architecture and the digital infrastructure.

– Prof. dr. ir. Hans Wortmann

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