We are now in the era of Industry 4.0, when cyber-physical systems interconnect machines, computers, the Internet, artificial intelligence, technologies like virtual or augmented reality—and, of course, human capabilities—for better and better business results.
How can SMEs in the manufacturing sector make this shift? One example would be by creating a smart and autonomous factory that can make its own decisions based on complex data processing systems.
For more ideas, we met with a panelist from our Fueling Manufacturing Growth in Montréal training workshop, Mr. Antoine Proteau, Data Science Manager at APN, a high-tech aeronautics company recognized for its know-how, production capacity and cutting-edge technological expertise.
Is data science a new discipline?
Data science is a scientific discipline that was developed to harness the power of data. Company leaders have known for a long time that there is much to be learned from all the data that can be collected from the business environment. When used in the right way, this data can save you time, money and resources while increasing your productivity.
As opportunities from new technologies have grown, a natural evolution at APN has also been the new role of data science manager. While data analysis isn't new, it will become a bigger source of value in the coming years, as business owners now understand the importance of data. Whether to model a situation or find new links to establish practical correlations between different variables, data will be put into boosting productivity. Data is the way forward to help you better understand issues related to things like production and quality control so that you can better respond to situations and make better decisions.
To effectively analyze data, it must be relevant, error-free and streamlined. Since data is a raw material, so to speak, it must be of high quality. Rigour and accuracy are essential. A data science manager like Antoine Proteau may set a goal to implement methods for systematic data cleaning. Clean and solid data will put you in a better position to support production through improved upstream analysis.
Advice to create digital transformation in your business
How do we start on this path? That’s the big question for many manufacturing SMEs. The good news is that there are a lot more resources to guide you in your quest for digital prowess. You can find audits and self-assessments on the market to first figure out your needs. Organizations such as CEFRIO and Investissement Québec have put a lot of effort into educating SMEs about the importance of shifting to Industry 4.0. The Ministère de l’Économie, de la Science et de l’Innovation also has tools to guide you in this process. RCGT is another company that provides resources on digital technology through its artificial intelligence and advanced analytics office.
Funding and grants can support your digital initiatives, and tax credits are also available for research and development. If your business can’t dedicate internal resources to these changes, you may want to consider hiring a consultant. However, another—and more affordable—option could be to hire interns, for example, to work in areas like mechatronics. 1 Many universities, research centres, and other institutions run research and R&D partnership programs with businesses.
Another tip: take it slowly and step by step. Start by setting small goals and implementing low-risk projects one at a time while staying true to a clear strategy and vision. If you get off track, this will help you course correct more easily without breaking the bank. APN gets each small project well on its way and working perfectly before moving on to the next.
One last recommendation is that you need to stay in the loop. Industry 4.0 in the manufacturing sector requires knowledge in many areas, which means the task is a multidisciplinary one. Information constantly flows and changes, and staying up to date means a lot of reading and reflection.
Key mistakes to avoid
For APN, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to do nothing! Don’t believe that Industry 4.0 is a fad, or a bubble that will burst at one point. APN believes that manufacturing businesses that miss the shift to digital and new technology are destined to disappear. Investing in this area is a question of survival.
However, another mistake would be investing without creating a digital strategy first. Your investment will depend on your company’s vision. This will ensure that you fully integrate new technologies within your organization’s existing ecosystem. You also need to get informed about Industry 4.0. Resources abound online to help you keep up your education.
A new way to know your customers
We’ve all heard the expression that “the customer is king.” This means that customers must be the focus of everything you do. After a strategic reflection process at APN, they realized that a technology-first approach at the company would also benefit the customer. Why? Because technology allows a company to improve and offer better prices, better service and better quality.
Through increasingly complex and efficient databases, e-commerce, and multiple ways to connect, you get to know your customers better. And when you conduct data-driven market analyses, you can better serve your customers with better products that are more customized, particularly when it comes to retail and B2C. Investing in technology therefore leads to not only better productivity but also an improved product.
APN made the shift to Industry 4.0 about seven years ago. At first, the return on their investment wasn’t so clear. After spending a few years implementing many projects and changing the company’s vision and strategy to integrate these new technologies, they finally saw results.
For example, the company has improved its delivery times, internal work is faster than ever, and employees produce more without having to put in more effort or time and without using more equipment. Their work is optimized, as it is faster, more flexible and of better quality. The main result for the company has been constant growth.
Overall, integrating new technologies at your manufacturing business is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Businesses that don’t make this shift risk becoming obsolete fast. To stay in the game, especially when competing with countries with cheaper labour, companies need to find other ways to get an edge. By investing in new digital technology, manufacturing companies can develop a major and crucial competitive advantage. Now that these processes are available and accessible to everyone, it’s up to you to make the most of them right now.
1 Mechatronics combines mechanical engineering, electronics, automation and computing, all of which take place in real time. This interdisciplinary area of engineering is used to understand and therefore design powerful automatic systems and control complex systems. This is how APN got its feet wet with these new technologies.