Digital Vision: How Manufacturing Got Its Mojo Back


From Horse and Buggy to Henry Ford to a Bucket of Thermoplastic?

In Manufacturing 4.0 the term “digital thread” describes the way we are making some things now and will make almost everything in the future. The digital thread touches product design, the factory shop floor, the supply chain, and marketing, sales, and services. It allows all of these areas to respond almost in real-time to customer input, customer feedback, customer use data and open source, industry-wide information on quality, cost, forecasts and behavior.

There are three technologies that are driving this new industry:

  • Advanced analysis (AA): AA is the collection of data over long periods of time that enables manufacturing design that takes future possibilities into consideration.
  • Intelligent machining (IM): IM integrates smart sensors and controls so equipment can automatically sense and understand the current production environment to conduct “self-aware” manufacturing.
  • Advanced manufacturing enterprise (AME): AME aggregates and integrates data throughout the manufacturing supply chain product lifecycle.

This revolution called digital manufacturing and design connects different parts of the manufacturing lifecycle through data, and allows us to utilize that information to make smarter, more efficient business decisions.

This infographic from Capgemini Consulting illustrates the point

You’re at the car dealer and you need a part that in yesterday’s manufacturing world would take three weeks to ship from Germany. Tomorrow (or by midnight tonight—innovation is happening in real time!) your dealer 3D prints the part (but modified, better now!) the same day and your car is ready to be picked up that night. Imagine the savings in resources in not shipping this part from one part of the world to another. Imagine the customization afforded. The part that’s put back on your car is slightly different from the one before—maybe dimensions are adjusted, attachment points are modified.

Behind the scenes, open source data collection and analytics allows the manufacturers to see instantaneously that 1. The part failed, 2. Where it failed, and 3. Why it failed, and modifications are made. Going forward, this modified part is tracked—how far does it go before it fails? Where does it fail? Why? Adjustments are made again, iteratively.

Continuous iteration, continuous integration. This is DevOps including development, operations, and every other department on the planet, including the end-user. (Here’s a real-world example if you’re interested:

Other Examples:

An automotive original equipment manufacturer (OEM) can design the entire manufacturing process digitally (tooling, machining, assembly sequencing, and factory layout) at the same time that designers are designing the next vehicle program. Because of this, manufacturing engineers are able to provide immediate feedback to designers, if there are any constraints in the part manufacturability. This type of collaboration between manufacturing engineers and designers creates a holistic view of product and process design [].

A high tech supplier can use a digital manufacturing system to create a 3D simulation of a complete production line, and analyze the different production variants and concepts as part of the request for quote (RFQ) process. This kind of transparency and precision in planning and proposal preparation can help this company to gain greater customer confidence, and ultimately help it win the contract.

Robotic arms in a car factory

If Everyone’s On Board, There Must Be a Lot to Gain

Digital manufacturing is a sea change supported by government, academia, and large players within the industry including Cisco Systems, Siemens, Lockheed-Martin, HP, BMW, and Johnson & Johnson. These big industry players want to realize the decreased cost, decreased risk, reduced defects, reduced energy consumption afforded by digital manufacturing.

There are several government organizations involved including DoD, NASA, NSF, Department of Agriculture and SBA. Why? Digital manufacturing means more jobs stay in the U.S., overseas jobs return to the U.S., advanced innovation belongs to the U.S., and economic and environmental efficiencies are realized by the U.S.

From NASA manufacturing parts in space to Pitney-Bowes performing responsive maintenance on its mass mailing machines, digital manufacturing is affecting every manufacturer today and tomorrow.

The benefits of digital manufacturing apply to the entire industry and will quickly overshadow traditional manufacturing methodology. Benefits affect productivity in both the planning and production processes.

  • Product, process, plant, and resource information are associated, viewed, and taken through change processes, with a consistent and comprehensive approach to production design.
  • Part manufacturing processes are optimized within a managed environment. Flexible work instructions can display 2D/3D part information, along with the machining and tooling instructions.
  • Simulation capabilities help reduce commissioning costs by validating robotics and automation programs virtually.
    Factory models are created faster and operate under optimal layout, material flow, and throughput before production ramp-up.
  • Six-sigma and lean initiatives are supported with a graphical environment that analyzes dimensional variation.
  • Quality data is shared across the organization through complete, verifiable, CAD- based machine inspection programs for coordinate measuring machines (CMMs) and numerical control (NC) machine tools.
  • Production processes are executed with real-time access to lifecycle data [].

The Boat May Have Left the Dock but There’s Another One Coming

If you’re not in the game yet, it’s really not the end of the world. In the world of digital, there are early adopters, and late adopters and everyone in between. In the digital space, and as the chart below illustrates, the “digirati” industries include high tech, retail, and banking; the “fashionistas” include travel and hospitality; “conservatives” include insurance and utilities; and manufacturing falls in the “beginners” category, along with pharmaceuticals and packaged goods [ manufacturing_0.pdf].

Digital Maturity By Industry:


The point is that there is not one digital ship; there are many. And you can climb on-board when, where, and how you’re ready. But the benefits to going digital far outweigh the risks, so it’s good to at least be thinking about where you want to head and how you want to get there.

And here are some things you’ll need for the trip:

  • Digital vision
  • Gen Z
  • Many little failures

Digital Vision is Really a New Set of Glasses

It is ironic that the concept of “Agile” began in manufacturing but was actually adopted by the software industry, not manufacturing. Agile software development comprises a set of management practices and values based on customer focus achieved through iterative and incremental development, and where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams and their customers. And now the software industry is defining manufacturing 4.0.

Shifting to agile manufacturing is not just a matter of adopting one or two particular management tactics. Agile requires driving toward:

  • A different goal (delighting the customer),
  • A different role for managers (enabling self-organizing teams),
  • A different way of coordinating work (dynamic linking),
  • Different values (continuous improvement and radical transparency) and
  • Different communications (horizontal conversations).
  • A single fix is not enough: companies need systemic change.

[ agile/#32bdd36e5b37]

To get there from here does not require a new leader, but it does require a new kind of leadership. If you’re driving manufacturing you’ve most likely been in the game for a while and you know the ins and outs. Thought leaders within the digital manufacturing space may equate change with new leaders but I don’t agree. I would say what you’re leading toward in digital manufacturing is different, how you define success is different, but if you’ve been a rock star at producing quality, dependable parts at the lowest cost, the kind of commitment and determination it took to get you there can be applied to a different set of desired outcomes. Whether traditional or digital manufacturing, you still need to focus on collaboration, quality, and motivating your team.

But if you’re not able to move from an analog, linear approach to an integrative, iterative, agile approach, you will need to find some senior leaders internally or onboard from outside to help you make that shift. Leadership is the critical bit. Digital transformation, though it involves empowerment and flat collaboration and communication throughout the organization, has to start with digital vision and urgency at the top.

Only 1 in 3 manufacturing companies has a legitimate digital vision, as defined by a high-level roadmap for digital transformation spanning internal organizational units and management levels [].

Digital transformation will have a significant impact on the way a company is doing business. In order to drive the transformation successfully, it is essential to engage all relevant organizational stakeholders. Leaders must allocate adequate funding for transforming the organization; actively promote a digital vision; engage all stakeholders in digital initiatives; and systematically drive a cultural change. Moreover, they must invest in developing the required skills in their organization–a critical transformation measure, since digitization will entail radically new capability and skill profiles [ access/resource/pdf/digitizing-manufacturing_0.pdf].

Fewer than one in two manufacturing companies is systematically fostering the change process. The industry recognizes the need for engaging the organization but some players are at an earlier stage of this process compared to other industries.


To get from classic value chain to integrated value chain requires laser focus at the top coupled with support all around. The result:

Transformation of the Classic Value Chain


Finally, business and IT must be in alignment—but not just on a management level. They must truly be thoroughly and functionally integrated. As the chart below shows, there is significant industry improvement to be made in this area as well and to be effective the changes must be systemic.



Digital manufacturing is a game worth playing, so get (or stay) on board, starting with digital vision and then moving to skills.

Babies, Bathwater and Gen Z

Digital manufacturing requires cross-collaboration, self-forming teams, data analysis, small failures and fast changes. Our view is that there is no need to discard your existing folks (including yourself) just because you’ve been approaching manufacturing in what is going to be an obsolete way.

That’s like saying you should fire your Java programmer because you need .NET. If the Java programmer can’t or doesn’t want to learn .NET, you may have to make some changes. If your Java programmer does want .NET, you’ve got a well-rounded, rich perspective bridging different languages and perhaps enabling YOU to take the best from both.

This is where the Gen Z reference comes in. Gen Z represents a set of characteristics and an approach to work [] that will help you shift into the fourth industrial revolution. Get ready for some reverse mentoring. Why?

Gen Z is open and wants transparency in return. Gen Z wants to continuously learn. Gen Z wants to try (and fail) on the road to success. Gen Z wants ownership and open source. No, these two things are not mutually exclusive. Gen Z wants to contribute to something greater than their own immediate environment, and they want to apply their passion and commitment to the cause. Think Maslov’s Pyramid applied to your shift into digital manufacturing [ engagement/].

Here’s Some Evidence:

  • Advancing technologies and evolving company processes require a highly-trained, agile workforce. Equipping the workforce for smart factories of the future is difficult, and most companies express concern about their current workforce’s ability to meet the demands. To keep up, workers need to be problem- solvers, creative thinkers and self-directed learners [ closing-manufacturing-workforce-skills-gap].
  • Manufacturing has evolved far beyond the days of workers tied to dedicated, repetitive jobs. In fact, industrial operations will more radically change in the next five years than they have in the last 20 [http://].
  • 67% of manufacturing survey respondents report a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers and 56% anticipate the shortage to grow worse in the next three to five years. When asked to look ahead three to five years, respondents indicate that access to a highly skilled, flexible workforce is the most important factor in their effectiveness. Unfortunately, respondents report that the number one skills deficiency among their current employees is problem solving skills, making it difficult for current employees to adapt to changing needs. Exacerbating the issue is the stubbornly poor perception of manufacturing jobs among younger workers. A recent public opinion survey on manufacturing found that among 18-24 year-olds, manufacturing ranks dead last among industries in which they would choose to start their careers [ A07730B2A798437D98501E798C2E13AA.ashx].

Interestingly, the skills gap extends in two directions: one is toward traditional roles like welder or pipe fitter, filled by skilled labor that is largely exiting the workforce with age. The other, and this is the piece associated with digital manufacturing, is technical, innovative, creative, collaborative types eager to engage in progressive movement toward better ways of getting things done. These folks have historically considered manufacturing a less desirable industry due to its reputation for hierarchical management and old methods. This is changing thanks to the many business and government and academic bodies engaging in manufacturing 4.0.

Filling in the Gaps and Getting Inspired: Insource, Outsource, Other?

Clearly there is and will continue to be a skills gap as we transition from essentially one industry (class manufacturing) to another (digital manufacturing), as shown in the tables below from a Manufacturing Institute survey. Survey respondents selected the option that best described the availability of qualified workers for the following workforce segments at their company:


If you’re looking to introduce new skills and approaches, you can hire, outsource, train internally, or a combination of all three. Each option has pros and cons, including:


  • Pros: long-term commitment, investment in training for long term
  • Cons: what if needs change? Expensive and much unknown. Cultural shift. Not sure what skills and leadership styles will work


  • Pros: shift team, shift skills, immediate access to skills and ideas without long-term commitment; ability to pivot
  • Cons: long-term employment not a possibility


  • Pros: leverage experience of current staff, retain loyalty and synergy of existing team members; leverage existing team members to lead change
  • Cons: training is expensive and non-linear. Traditional one-size-fits-all classroom instruction won’t be enough. The most effective education will include competency-based, multimedia instruction using cooperative work/learning assignments and courseware with simulations of real-life manufacturing situations.

Manufacturing 4.0 in action

Two examples of industry change, from copper to kicks:

Codelco: Revolutionizing Mining Through Digital Technologies

Codelco, the largest copper producer in the world, operates internationally and employs over 18,000 people. At the beginning of the millennium – facing increasing challenges around workers’ security, environment and productivity – Codelco took a hard strategic look at what the future of mining could be. The CEO communicated an evolving digital vision, and the company drove initiatives in mining-automation.

Today, four mines in Chile are operated automatically: trucks drive themselves, operations are controlled remotely, and information is shared in real-time. This was more than just a technology implementation challenge. It involved a new culture, employee engagement, and new skills. As CIO Marco Antonio Orellana Silva explains: “Our company is very conservative, so changing the culture is a key challenge. We created internal innovation awards to promote new ideas and encourage our workers to innovate.” And now there is a vision for “Codelco 3.0”: an intelligent mining model relying on integrated information networks and fully- automated processes.

Mining carriage in underground illuminated tunnel .

Nike: From Separate Initiatives to Firm-Level Transformation

Nike, the world’s leading maker of athletic shoes, apparel, equipment, and accessories. As new digital innovations appeared, Nike was fast to capitalize in three critical areas:

Social Media: Nike developed the Nike+ concept for runners. Nike+ monitors and tracks each workout by connecting sensors in shoes with devices such as the iPhone and an internet platform. Runners can share their performance online and even receive customized advice from coaches. Meanwhile, Nike gathers detailed data about how customers use its products. According to CEO Mark Parker, “Connecting used to be ‘Here’s some product, and here’s some advertising. We hope you like it.’ Connecting today is a dialogue.”

Mass-customizing products: Nike’s custom shoe offerings allow customers to design and order shoes online, share designs with friends, and vote on others’ designs. These social media capabilities enable customers to engage with the product online before and after they buy. And listening to these online conversations allows Nike to identify popular designs and sense new trends.

Digital product design: Nike started using 3D design tools to create new products in the early 2000s. It then diffused digital design and collaboration capabilities to the whole supply chain. The transition did more than improve the firm’s design capability. It also supported sustainability policies and appealed to younger designers who expected digital design capabilities. CEO Parker explained “Materials, componentry, construction methods, manufacturing methods, the whole digital revolution. We are embedding all that thinking into the product.”

Many Little Failures:

Much like waterfall vs agile software development methodologies, traditional manufacturing put everything in perfect and somewhat rigid place and the hit the Go button, digital manufacturing lives on incremental, iterative, and continuous development, testing, analyzing, modifying, refactoring, and over and over…. Fail fast, fail forward applies to digital manufacturing just as it does to agile development in general. This is a new mindset and a new approach to success for those in the business of making stuff.

Much like agile in software development, digital manufacturing requires a similar approach [ operations/ideas-insights/featured-article/-/asset_publisher/4rTTGHNzeaaK/content/sprint-to-digital-manufacturing- success/10192]:

Young woman runner resting after workout session on sunny morning. Female fitness model sitting on street along pond in city. Female jogger taking a break from running workout.
  • Identify pain points: what will digital do to help your company?
  • Start small: Collect a number of small ideas that fit with your digital vision and run a number of digital sprints—a series of experiments that address the earlier identified pain points or opportunities and that try to solve a problem in non-conventional ways.
  • Fail fast: The notion of failed experiments conjures up thoughts of disastrous consequences, ensuing legal actions, and the end of a promising career in a traditional manufacturing environment. However, by experimenting in a controlled manner, failure allows you to prove or disprove the validity of certain digital concepts and approaches. The key is to fail fast with minimal investments and to learn from the failures.
  • Iterate and pivot: Experiments require several iterations before a call can be made about whether they’re successful or not. And sometimes experiments lead to alternative ideas or solutions that wouldn’t have been obvious without a hands-on test.
  • Scale fast: By this time, the proposed digital solution has a quantifiable business case with successful validation in one or more pilot implementations. You can invest in a rollout across the enterprise, using the learnings from the process to accelerate the execution, and, if warranted and required, to selectively rewire legacy IT systems.

As you can see, the approach to manufacturing 4.0 looks (and is) similar to that of a startup. This is what makes next gen manufacturing attractive to entrepreneurial, innovative types. Whether you are that or not, you will benefit from the infusion of new thinking and new ideas.

Digital manufacturing is for everyone. All ships will rise; just get your boat in the ocean and look toward the horizon.

If you’d like help filling software engineering skills gaps, contact us here [ contact/].

Here’s an example [] of our work within the medical manufacturing space.

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