8 min read / June 6, 2019 / Staff Writer
Digitization and automation are two of today’s most important trends. They have combined to transform the way we live, work, play and produce. These technologies are enabling platforms like connected mobility, smart grids and smart cities, and in turn advancing the shift toward urbanization and making megacities a reality.
For commerce, digitization and automation are providing a high-tech foundation for the next industrial evolution. Already, connected ecosystems of people, assets and information are helping forward-thinking organizations improve cost efficiency, productivity, safety and quality while driving down time-to-market. Let’s take a look at how these trends are opening up new opportunities for businesses.
Digitization and automation have been in use for years. But the introduction of powerful new technologies that depend on these two trends is making it more important for companies to step up adoption.
Digitization is simply the process of converting non-digital information into digital data. For example, turning printed communications into electronic mail (email), or converting hand-drawn schematics into CAD (computer-aided design) drawings.
Automation means using information technology or machines to take on repetitive processes and tasks, while freeing humans to do other things. Automation is used in a variety of ways to run everything from routine workflows to robotic assembly lines to self-driving vehicles.
Separately, digitization and automation can help organizations open up new areas of opportunity. But when implemented together they have a greater potential to help organizations improve efficiency, productivity, safety, and customer experience, by powering technologies that help companies work smarter and more efficiently.
Using digital data formats makes it easier for a business to collect, analyze, manage and manipulate information. Digital data is easier to share with a broad and diverse audience, including both humans and machines. Organizations can use digital data to leverage a host of technologies like the “internet of things” (IoT), artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality, cloud computing, and more. In turn, these technologies enable the automation of systems and equipment to help businesses make better decisions, perform repetitive tasks and even operate without human intervention.
If you have any doubt about the potential for digitization and automation to positively impact industry, just look at how it’s enhanced our day-to-day lives. Smartphones wake us up in the morning and keep us connected during the day. Intelligent software automates everything from traffic lights to elevators to our household appliances. Drones deliver our packages. Smart home systems keep us warm and safe while we sleep.
In the same way digitization and automation facilitate every part of our lives, these trends are being applied in industry to create opportunities for enterprises of all sizes. When combined with IoT they provide the foundation for Industry 4.0., the 4th industrial revolution.
Industry 4.0 is a vision of integrated industry that uses computing, software and internet technologies to directly link people, machines, systems equipment and components that communicate and cooperate with each other. Linking the digital and real worlds enables self-managing production processes that lead to significantly higher productivity and efficiency. By networking smart machines, warehousing systems and production facilities can optimize anything from individual production steps to the entire value chain.
By enabling the emerging technologies that drive Industry 4.0, digitization and automation have the potential to revolutionize every element of industry. Manufacturers can rapidly design, modify, create and customize products while lowering costs and reacting to changes in demand, consumer preferences or the supply chain.
Smart manufacturing facilities can leverage comprehensive real-time information about the price, quality and availability of materials and proactively change production schedules. A cloud-based, open architecture infrastructure allows processes to be controlled across company boundaries from anywhere in the world. Companies can take advantage of computer-controlled robots, numerical control machining equipment, unmanned transport trucks, and automated warehouse equipment, to optimize resources and achieve greater efficiencies across their operations.
Connected sensors allow machines in an Industry 4.0 factory to react to unexpected changes in production, predict failures and trigger maintenance processes autonomously, or even force management to trigger required maintenance at the best possible time. In addition to condition monitoring and fault diagnosis, components and systems are able to gain self-awareness and self-predictiveness, which gives management deeper insight into the status of the factory.
Organizations are taking notice of the potential benefits of digitization and automation. But as with any disruptive influence, industries have varying rates and degrees of adoption. Every industry surveyed for “Gartner’s 2018 CIO Agenda Industry Insights” report ranked digital business as one of their top 10 business objectives. But even as 47 percent of industry leaders ranked digital transformation as a top priority, most have made only minimal investments, and only a handful of industries have fully realized their digital potential.
Businesses that are ahead-of-the-curve in adopting digitization and automation are winning the battle for market share and profit growth; some are even reshaping their industries to their own advantage. Even industries that are just beginning to make use of digital technology are seeing benefits.
One example is original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that employ digital twins of their machines to accelerate the engineering process for customized parts and machinery that must meet exacting customer specifications. OEMs that create, test and quantify these products in the virtual world can cut down on actual production time and eliminate defects.
Pharma companies with digitally enabled labs can enhance the research, development and manufacturing of drugs. These facilities are seeing improved agility and shortened testing times, allowing them to release new drugs faster and increase productivity up to 40 percent. Digitization and automation are also helping these companies reduce manual errors to ensure better quality and prevent compliance issues, saving millions in downtime, lost product and potential penalties.
In agriculture, growers that use remote sensors in the field to collect hyper-local data about growing conditions can use the data to better manage seed, soil, fertilizer, and irrigation, and make predictions about timing and yield. Farmers who automate their operations using drones that remotely monitor conditions and apply fertilizers, pesticides and other treatments from above are realizing cost savings due to efficiencies in materials, labor and other resources.
The forestry industry is finding that some aspects of logging can be 100 percent automated, freeing up operators to concentrate on planning and strategic decision-making. Companies that use drones to digitally map job sites, locate remote roadside timber stacks and identify potential jobsite hazards are increasing production, while improving safety. Geofencing software is helping logging operations locate and optimize route planning for machinery. With heavy equipment systems that automatically relay jobsite production data, logging operations are increasing productivity, optimizing log recovery and reducing downtime.
Heavy equipment industries are traditionally slower to adopt new technologies. However, market forces have already pushed mining and construction to be more progressive in some areas that require digitization and automation, such as the autonomous operation of trucks and equipment, and edge-to-core computing.
With this technology already in use, the mining industry is perfectly positioned to further improve operations, by breaking down silos and promoting integration between the mine, processing and transport. Data collected from across the operation can be analyzed to identify production issues, manage inventory and quality, track production and asset performance and understand costs.
End-to-end visibility enables mines to find and optimize efficiencies across their operation. Then, they can focus on meeting strategic initiatives, such as digital exploration, agile mining operations, connected assets and next-gen safety. Here are a few examples:
Industry’s momentum gives us a preview of how digitization and automation could be applied to advance society, and elevate our standard of living while lowering its costs. Already many urban centers have implemented technologies designed to support increasingly dense populations of people and businesses. Intelligent traffic management systems reduce congestion and keep traffic flowing to shorten our daily commutes. Disaster early warning systems and gunshot detection technology speeds emergency response times to keep us out of harm’s way. Utility management systems prevent wasted resources. Digitizing documents allows local governments to accelerate approvals for new businesses, facilities and housing to help ease demand and keep costs of living lower.
But that’s just a small fraction of the potential benefits that digitization and automation can unlock. Operating with infrastructure that connects directly to our homes, vehicles, even our personal devices, Smart Cities of the future will further enable us to move faster, be more productive and enjoy a better quality of life.
As emerging technologies become mainstream, the need to adopt digitization and automation is reaching critical mass. But before we rush to implement the next shiny new technology, we should understand that digital transformation is a process, not an event. And not all digitally transformed projects will deliver their intended value. We need to make sure that society’s leaders prioritize and implement technologies that will benefit the majority and provide a platform for future growth. Finally, we should all keep in mind that no single hi-tech solution will universally improve our world. But choosing the right solutions at the right time will help us all reap the biggest rewards.