IPC APEX EXPO 2021 Keynote: Travis Hessman on ‘The Great Digital Transformation’


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Wednesday’s Premier Keynote at IPC APEX EXPO 2021 came from Travis Hessman, editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, “a website and magazine dedicated to manufacturing leadership, operational excellence and the technologies that make it possible.”

An energetic and animated presenter, a powerful storyteller and visibly passionate about digital manufacturing, Hessman made it clear at the outset that his goal was not to hype an already over-hyped industry, nor to focus on the technologies themselves, but to walk-through the process of transformation. He stated that he was a process guy, and it was process, not “gee-whiz amazing tech-toys” that would transform our industry. Reasons why companies had got it wrong and failed in their attempted digital transformations became apparent as he outlined methodologies and processes adopted by companies that had used them successfully.

Travis_Hessman_250.jpgShrewdly avoiding the need to hide behind a mask—by standing in an empty hall at his Cleveland editorial office—he declared that to talk about the future he needed to consider the present and recognise the revolution that was already unfolding.

All the way through his talk he emphasised that this “great digital transformation,” which offered the first real hope of overcoming the brutal environment of the present, was about solving manufacturing problems. But the solutions were not as simple as throwing AI or IoT or robots at the problems, and he was not going to bore us with lengthy discourses on theory and change management. His approach was to demonstrate what was possible by looking from the inside at some manufacturing operations where the thinking and the processes were sound. His extreme example of what was possible with a fully realised digital strategy was Intel’s wafer fab, which did indeed employ all the “gee-whiz amazing tech-toys,” generated six billion data points per day and achieved “near-perfect results nearly every time” with the smart use of smart technologies.

Statistics and case studies of fully realised digital strategies could send confusing messages, and they suggest to the industry at large that the technology was the solution. Hessman made it clear that it wasn’t that easy! Although all the potential gains were realisable, no amount of spending could make them happen overnight. And he showed some much more realistic figures, indicating, for example, that 84% of companies were still stuck in pilot mode after a year, and that 60% of projects were shut down at the proof-of-concept stage.

Everything was about process, and the issue with digital transformation was that technology was becoming divorced from the actual manufacturing processes it was designed to serve. And if investment in technology was not part of an overall process, it became a bomb thrown into the operational heart of the organisation. The technologies and tools could achieve great things, but not unless they were integrated into the underlying process. The technologies themselves were not to blame for the failure of IoT projects; it was the framing and the strategy.

Hessman had been working with manufacturers to develop a new frame of thinking about technology. The overall concept was to prioritise the business over the technology, leading with the problem, not the solution; focusing on the problems, then examining the technologies that could solve those problems, looking on them as “tools to help you do what you do better.”

He outlined a five-step strategy for success, beginning with a shift in perspective:

  1. An evolution of underlying business practices with incremental smart upgrades and improvements, not a revolution.
  2. Define a value proposition: making sure the mission was clear by answering three key questions about the problem: “what intelligent information was needed to solve it, what data was needed to create that intelligence and finally, what technology was needed to gather that data and create the intelligence?”
  3. “Nibble at the edges”: start to experiment with low-risk, high-yield projects that would demonstrate the effectiveness of the intended solution without risking any core functions or products. The outcome would set the basis and direction for an evolving digital strategy based on early proof-of-concept and result in process-changes that would develop into means of addressing core problems. Another outcome would be the creation of home-grown experts capable of leading subsequent larger edge-nibbling projects.
  4. Develop a roadmap for implementation, building inward from the nibbled edges.
  5. Once all four steps had been completed, most “new” skills, processes and protocols would be already in place to enable the digital strategy to be properly deployed without it having the effect of a “bomb thrown into the operation,” as previously alluded to, and to become a structured activity to make the company stronger. Effectively it was an evolution of what the company had been doing all along and the fact that it had been “digitally transformed” hardly even mattered, although the problems had been solved.

hessman_filler.jpgLooking at how it worked in the real world, Hessman took two case studies. His first referred to a maintenance programme for Toyota Material Handling—keeping their fork-trucks in operation and their customers happy. There were some major challenges, such as the lack of appropriate sensors on their older trucks, and the lack of facility to handle the enormous amount of data that these sensors, once fitted, would generate. The value proposition was based on artificial intelligence and predictive analytics. But the company had no experience of artificial intelligence and were wary of committing to the technology. They began to “nibble” by processing inspection data with artificial intelligence in a single welding cell in a single plant. The system analysed tens of thousands of welds and identified one welding robot as drifting slightly off-optimum although still well-within limits and not detectable by normal human inspection. The offending machine was rectified long before it could cause problems downstream, and the company recognised the benefits of artificial intelligence and machine learning without having taken any risks or made major investment.

Intel’s wafer fab told a similar story of simple beginnings: to meet growing demand, they had switched from eight-inch wafers to 12-inch, which were too heavy to move by hand so they had to employ robots. It was then no longer safe to have human workers to inspect and maintain the systems, so artificial intelligence was employed. And that’s where their digital revolution began—by solving a real problem in the smartest and most efficient way possible.

Hessman recalled a mid-sized EMS company he had visited in 2018, that had experienced a “brutal” year when a world seemingly obsessed with IoT was looking to cram everything with electronics, resulting in a battle for component availability, and designers having to be innovative in their desperation to work around such components as could be sourced. They reckoned that the situation couldn’t get worse—but it did! At the beginning of 2021, the world shortage of semiconductors had effectively stopped production in the automotive industry! Whatever, Hessman had recently revisited the company, and was delighted to learn that they had resolved many of their problems with digital solutions. Their COO modestly admitted that he was no expert on Industry 4.0, then detailed a massive data integration project that effectively connected the whole operation from design to final delivery and provided managers and engineers with the intelligent information they needed.

But none of this had been done in the name of “transformation” or for the sake of technology. The company had been trying to solve real problems, and it needed better data on its stock and its operations to make smarter decisions. Nibbling at the edges had given positive results and led to a progression of more ambitious nibbles. Hessman made it clear that this had not been a digital transformation project but a manufacturing process of solving the right problems by asking the right questions, and constantly working to improve the use of the data using available technology, making sensible investment decisions within a culture of continuous improvement. “Digital transformation is the result of good work to solve real problems. It’s not the driver. No Industry 4.0 experience required!”

The parting words in Hessman’s concluding slide summarised the essence of his message: “Put the problems in front of the solutions and develop processes not disruptions!” His inspirational presentation put a rational and realistic perspective on the potentially daunting challenge of digital transformation.

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