Getting Started Digitizing Your Manufacturing Process

How do you get started on digitizing your manufacturing process? Chris Bustos, FactoryFour’s Senior Solutions Consulting Manager, walks through transitioning your firm to more efficient and effective manufacturing processes.

The world of manufacturing has come a long way over the past 50+ years. So much so in fact that it’s given rise to various new terms to describe this progression: advanced manufacturing, industry 4.0, and IIoT to name a few. At the core of these advancements however, is the ability to create more efficient and effective manufacturing processes. One of the vital stepping stones in all of this is the simple transition from paper-based and manual processes throughout a manufacturing facility, to a digital based process.

It sounds simple enough, however, manufacturers continue to find the task daunting and unwieldy to implement in practice. In this brief article we’ll describe some of the steps we recommend when it comes to digitizing your manufacturing processes.

Take Stock of the Status Quo

The first, and perhaps most important step is to take stock of a company’s status quo. Digitization can be a broad, all-encompassing term. Campaigns to digitize a business can often times be more successful if taken in a piecemeal approach. So, where are paper or manual processes used across the business today? Why are they still being performed this way?

When evaluating the status quo, it’s critical to not only look at how things are being done, but additionally what second order effects may be caused by this way of working. This will help support internal business cases for why digitization needs to get done. For instance, manual and paper processes may be causing a large amount of double-entry which in turn has caused an increase in cycle time, and therefore a reduction in overall production.

As mentioned earlier, understanding the why behind each process is crucial to formulating an effective digitization initiative as well. For many well-established businesses there may be a hesitancy to document procedures and a simple reliance on tribal knowledge to get things done. If this is the case, think about how this impacts the business's ability to handle turn over or support scaling initiatives. By detailing out everything involved in the status quo today, it will help to support the rationale behind our second suggested step, determining the key objectives of digitization.

Determine the Key Objectives of Digitization

Digitization often seems like a no brainer for many companies. It needs to get done because our competitors are doing it, and we need to stay competitive. For some businesses, that’s enough rationale to justify such an expansive (and perhaps expensive) project, but if you’re reading this, I’d imagine your business may not fall into that bucket.

When properly scoping out the key objectives of digitization, firms often make the mistake of focusing too intently on the objectives which brought rise to the digitization conversation in the first place. Maybe a few operations managers have been complaining long enough at the weekly meeting that double entry is causing a headache on the floor. Maybe an issue has popped up in auditing which was exacerbated by the fact you still have a physical filing system in place for all records. These issues are all perfectly valid, and should certainly be considered when defining the key objectives to a project such as this, however, they are not the only objectives that should be considered.

The businesses and departments most successful with leading and implementing a digitization project are the ones that can accurately scope out and tie in multiple key objectives into the proposed business plan. With that in mind, don’t forget to consider initiatives that may be supported by digitization but have been placed to the side due to infeasibility at present. For example, perhaps the business has been looking to roll out a larger ESG initiative internally and could use the support of broader digitization to achieve the initiative’s goals.

Other more obvious objectives may align more closely with production itself. Improved traceability standards and an easier time adhering to industry regulations are often big wins for companies in sectors such as aerospace & defense, or medical devices. An objective can even be as simple as providing greater transparency into where orders are at in the production process. With all this in mind, the more objectives tied into an initiative, the more minds may need to be influenced to get the project out the door.

Plant the Seeds of Change

Gaining buy-in from all the various stakeholders who will be impacted by a digitization project is key. While there are may be many benefits to the initiative laid out, there are also many interruptions which may occur to employees' and departments' everyday work. Fears need to be assuaged that this process will be handled appropriately and that measures are being put in place to reduce the impact of interruptions as a transition occurs.

The best way to do this is to gain buy-in throughout every level of the organization that will be impacted. Establishing the critical relationships early with frontline managers can buy valuable time needed to put in place a plan that will work for each and every team. While the idea of digitization should be spoken about frequently with these employees, helping to work bottom up, it is also critical that upper management is fully bought into the venture from the start.

Without upper management’s dedication to build a culture of flexibility, one reliant on a digital future, it will be hard to justify to frontline workers why they should really care about a digitization initiative. The best champions in pushing forward a digital transformation such as this are the ones that can gain executive sponsorship early and can ensure they are willing to be vocal about the changes that will be made shortly.

Evaluate Methods of Deployment

Once the work towards internal buy-in has been started, it’s critical to simultaneously be working on evaluating the methods of deployment for a digital initiative. Based on the information gathered from due diligence on the status quo and key objectives, conversations with external vendors can really begin. What pieces of the digitization process can be handle by simple in-house fixes? Transitioning to email memos rather than printed flyers in the lunch room for example. While these in-house fixes are likely much smaller in scope, it’s important not to discount them. At the end of the day however, the expertise your firm will be reliant on will likely come from one, or multiple, 3rd party vendors.

By sticking to a rank order of your key objectives, it will be far easier to determine what new systems we may need in place today, versus three years from now. To be sure, building out an entire software ecosystem can be a daunting an overwhelming task. This is why we recommended the points prior, taking stock of the status quo, and determining key objectives. These first two steps will help determine whether your focus should be on implementing a brand new MES or perhaps a WMS.

At the end of the day, third party vendors are going to be a valuable and critical relationship for this step in your initiative's process. They have experience working with manufacturers looking to do the same thing every single day and are more than happy to share best practices on how to get these projects over the line.

With that said, the final decision on deployment will often involve a slew of different department heads. From IT and operations, to finance and the third party vendors. Each of these participants should have been considered and brought into conversations as early as possible to scope out what will be the most effective and least intrusive path of deployment. For every firm, a route to deployment may look different. Smaller facilities may choose to perform a full scale roll out all at once, while larger corporations tend to find the most successful approach as piloting the roll out within a single product line on the floor.


After what is likely a lengthly process detailing out requirements, scenario planning, and determining the best route of deployment for your digitization initiative, it’s time to launch! This is where the fruits of your labor can finally be enjoyed as transformation across the business starts to take place. And for the most ambitious organizations out there, it's a time when the next stage of initiatives can start to take shape.

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