Innovation blog part 3: Innovation as exploration versus innovation as implementation

27 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 last article in a series of three blogs about innovation in the manufacturing industry. The first blog discussed the balanced between technology push and strategic vision. The second blog described another balance, between innovation driven by process improvement and innovation focused on the digital infrastructure. This final blog discusses the challenge to try innovations in the area of integration of IT.

The experimental factory

Many companies have innovation programs to try and evaluate new technologies. Often words are used like experimental factory, prototype process development and proof of concept (PoC). Sometimes jokingly the words playground or sandbox are used. Experimenting is of course very useful. The company can become acquainted with new technologies on a small scale, maybe wait till the growing pains are over, and then start to implement the new technology in the production process.

As long as this testing concerns standalone technology, trying out doesn’t lead to a lot of complications. However, in the era of smart manufacturing most innovations in manufacturing technology are not standalone. All process steps contribute to the realization of the product, and when for example quality problems occur you should be able to find the causes throughout these process steps. Technology in an experimental factory will also increasingly have the character of generic IT, like usage of RFID for product identification or usage of augmented reality for information supply to the production employee.

Consequences of innovation through integration

This changes a lot for the experimental factory. Preferably, from an IT-perspective, the experimental factory should operate independently in its own development- and test environment. When the intended benefits are realized by the integration with existing production systems, then information exchange between the experimental factory and the existing systems is inevitable. This means that these existing systems have to be adapted to the needs of the experimental factory, and thus are influenced without having made a (positive) decision on the new technologies researched in the experimental factory. So even a proof of concept in a separate facility can influence existing production systems. These problems only increase due to the influence of smart manufacturing, where most value is created through integrations.

If the decision is made not to implement the new technologies (yet), the changes in the existing system should be undone. However, if the new technology should be implemented, a series of steps follow to really incorporate the technology into the existing IT landscape. The procedures resemble the standard procedures for new software.

A useful implementation method might be the DTAP-streetA useful implementation method might be the DTAP-street

Usually a so called DTAP-street is used, short for Development, Testing, Acceptance and Production. Every step in this street has an own system or environment existing of hardware and related software. During development the software, including code for information exchange, is put on the development server. The code is transformed into executable code (‘build’) and put on a test server at night. Then test scripts can be used to check whether the changes in the software don’t cause any problems elsewhere. If all tests are passed, the software is transferred to the acceptance server. This server should be as identical to the production environment as possible. The end users can then execute acceptance tests and get to know new features. After acceptance, the software can be included in the production environment.

Innovation by integration in Mobina

Mobina offers extensive possibilities to identify the impact of innovations, by using our process reference model which is linked to the information landscape. You can identify the advantages of innovations and how these are reached. You can also decide which processes are connected. Mobina offers insight in the applications involved in these processes, and which systems the changes influence. The consequences of an innovation, for both processes and the information landscape, are therefore already clear before the experimental factory is set up. Using Mobina you don’t have to face any surprises.

Conclusion

The end of this article also means the end of this first series of blogs on innovation. Innovation can hae a large impact on organization, processes, people and technology. This requires a careful approach for innovation projects. These three blogs described dimensions in which decisions for this approach can be made. Bottom-up approaches to identify innovations, like technology push and process improvements, can be valuable. However, these innovations should also fit in the bigger picture. Big changes in the information landscape should be tried, but this also comes with challenges. Therefore it is important to have a method that reverts any changes made in existing systems when a negative decision is taken.

Hopefully these blog posts have been useful so you can use innovations more effectively. If you have questions about these blogs, also in relation to the possibilities of our application Mobina, then you can contact us.

– Prof. dr. ir. Hans Wortmann

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