Losing Sleep over Your Digital Manufacturing Strategy? You’re Not the First

Business technology conceptRobots, digitization, manufacturing.

The digitization of manufacturing is a pretty big topic these days. The vision for an information-driven model that touches nearly every aspect of the product transformation process is pretty exciting. It can also be – for those in the midst of it – a pretty heavy mix of anticipation, excitement, skepticism and trepidation. Finding little examples of how things in our lives have changed for the better with digitization can provide some comfort: how we pay for things from our phones, how recommendations for our next great read appear magically when we visit Amazon or how navigating an unfamiliar city is a snap. But what about wholesale transformation? Is there an industry that has some lessons for manufacturers? I don’t think you have to look too much further than marketing.

That’s right. I think there are lessons that can be learned from the experience that marketing has undergone since the first clickable banner ad appeared in 1993. Yes, manufacturing is very, very different from marketing (capital intensity and scale come to mind in a big way), but there are a few parallels that can be drawn.

Data Becomes Knowledge, and Knowledge is Power

It once was that marketers broadcast messages widely, expecting that in a sea of ears and eyes, they’d find the one pair that might be looking for what they were selling. Access to information changed all that. Age, race, gender, sex, geographic location and more was just the beginning. More information filled in the lines: where we shop, what we buy, whom we associate with and how we wish to be perceived. All this information increases the level of precision and focus of marketing messages, without a significant increase in cost or resources. In fact, costs can come down. More importantly though, it produces better results.

Now, manufacturers are ready to embrace data-driven models. Recently, manufacturers shared that they plan to use the data captured by sensors to improve performance in several ways

  • 81% will use the data to drive product innovation
  • 64% will use the data to improve the customer experience
  • 47% plan to use the data to sell add-on solutions

The Market Speaks, You Listen

Manufacturers need to look no further than the evolutionary path that marketing has taken to see what is coming in terms of consumer expectations about products, services and engagement.

  • Dawn of marketing to 1950: marketers pushed messages to the market and consumers
  • 1950-2010: marketers pushed messages to customers and to markets at large
  • 2010-present: marketers collaborate with customers and partners to create and sustain value

For manufacturers, this last period, the one we are in now that has the biggest impact on their thinking and what’s driving the move toward digitization. The move has been emerging for decades actually and primarily taken hold in the electronics sector, where consumers quickly bought into a model where they could configure the latest gadget – computer, cell phone or today, cars – to their specifications. The result is factories that no longer produce in volume but continuously narrow lot sizes, cognizant of the fickle nature of consumers. One-to-one manufacturing may not be realistic, but every step that brings manufacturers and customers closer is one in the right direction.

Shifting Skill Sets

Early on marketing was the domain where creative thinkers thrived. Artists, writers, designers were the drivers behind the effort. As digitization took hold, creative minds were still important to the process, but so too became analytical skills. Fifteen years ago, who’d ever heard of a social media manager? Now, who’s heard of a company that doesn’t have or partner to get one?

The reverse seems to be true in manufacturing. As process-intensive as manufacturing is, with the need for exactitude, analytical minds have filled the ranks. Now, again, technology is driving a change. The combination of interconnected machines and artificial intelligence will mean that people will do less of the heavy lifting. To work in the factory of the future, creative people will become a critical asset for problem-solving, innovation and yes, customer engagement.

I’m not simplifying the learning curve that manufacturers have to overcome. I do think that in many ways the transformation will be easier, simply because manufacturers have always been good at measurement and they are pragmatic when it comes to sweeping changes.

Are there other digital transformation stories that can shed some light on what manufacturers need to do? What changes in manufacturing you think will be made be possible by digital technology? Tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.