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Back to the Future of Manufacturing

With much of the US and world abroad lifting restrictions for individuals and business to return to normalcy of life and operations, it will be time for manufacturers to start reducing the implementation of once unlikely contingency plans, and re-engage with forecasting, capital expenditures, and perhaps most importantly - innovation.

At the time of this article, it is unknown how the federal (and/or state) government or agencies within will incentivize manufacturers to implement new technologies in their  organizations to further the pursuit of greater efficiency and ultimately greater profitability, but it seems reasonable to assume that (additional) incentives in the form of grants or tax credits will exist sometime in the near future.  Many new technology players are entering the manufacturing space, most hoping to galvanize segments of - or the aggregate of the manufacturing industry around the adoption of a new technology, software package and/or equipment assets.  


While the topic of innovation is often started in a boardroom, the answers regarding "what" and "how" to start innovation initiatives often begins with customers. Understanding customer needs and pain points better widely accepted as the proper place to start the process, and it is the first step in evaluating new innovation initiatives at Dane Manufacturing.  


"According to Dirk Beveridge, founder of UnleashWD and proud Infor partner, “Innovation is leading customers to a better future for which they are willing and capable of rewarding you.” It’s not about shunning technology; it’s about being strategic in what tools you use to strengthen the customer relationship and improve their experiences. 

The difference between looking better, and being better 

Owning the latest technology looks great for positioning, but what if your new application doesn’t do anything to help your organization meet the needs of your customers? Bouncing between multiple cutting-edge applications might look better – but it isn’t doing anything to help your organization improve. Remember that as a distributor, your goal is to serve your customers – and they can see through the veneer of gadgets. If communication and productivity are not increasing and your performance indicators are not changing, your customers will know. When you set off on your transformation journey, don’t innovate to look better, innovate to be better. Consider pivoting to technology that helps you better engage with your customers while strengthening relationships. 

Let your customers tell you how to transform 

Innovation is about sustainable growth, adaptation, and differentiation. The processes and tools that give you a competitive edge should be largely informed by the needs of your customers. The key is to observe your organization from the outside in, relying heavily upon the experiences and needs of your customers. Engage with customers through journey mapping to understand their goals, their pain points, and how they define success. In the eBook, "Distribution As We Know It Is Dead", Beveridge includes a list of questions to ask customers to better direct their transformation efforts, including: 

  • What are you trying to achieve? 
  • What is the outcome you’re most focused on? 
  • What keeps you up at night? 
  • What negatively affects costs? Productivity? 
  • Why is the job important to the company? 
  • What do you need to get the job done? 

The role of technology 

Once you have identified the needs of your customers, it will be easier to direct your organization through the transformation journey. If your customers expect you to provide more than just products, consider offering value-added services such as kitting and assembly and distributor-managed inventory. If your customers are requesting more precision in the pricing and configuring stage of the sales cycle, seek out a dynamic tool to help your organization configure, price, or quote. If your customers want to pivot from sales counter purchasing to an automated or digital exchange, seek out tools that will help you integrate and monitor eCommerce sales. There are platforms, applications, and other technologies designed to respond to most pain points – it’s a matter of listening to which ones can best be applied to your organization and customer base." 

"Understanding innovation starts with your customers" 


Dirk points out some key attributes to planning for innovation – regardless of type or size. If you don't understand the customer journey throughout the product planning and production phases, there is little hope for a sustainable and effective innovation implementation within the manufacturing environment. At Dane Manufacturing, we pride ourselves on "End-to-End Capabilities" and talk about it frequently. This approach allows for quick iteration of new practices and/or methodologies that solve customer needs, and are typically agnostic to the stage of product lifecycle because of Dane Manufacturing's ability to produce metal products from Raw Material to Finished Good.  


Another emerging technology that is aiming to utilize the same framework used by cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Etherium to solve a problem as old as contract manufacturing: Consistency of product information throughout the manufacturing process.  


"According to a new NIST report, the security system better known for underpinning Bitcoin and other digital currencies not only provides tamper-proof transmission of manufacturing data, it also yields something just as valuable to its users—traceability of that data to all participants in the production process. 


“Because blockchain gives us both capabilities, we can build trustworthiness into digital manufacturing networks,” said NIST mechanical engineer Thomas Hedberg, one of the authors of the report." 


Securing the Digital Threat for Smart Manufacturing: A Reference Model for Blockchain-Based Product Data Traceability  - Sylvere Krima, Thomas Hedberg, Allison Barnard Feeney. This publication is available free of charge from: 


So what is blockchain, and how does it affect manufacturing? 


"Blockchain, first used for Bitcoin a decade ago, is an expandable list of records, or blocks, that each contain data representing an individual transaction by members of a network. Each block consists of the data set, a time stamp, a cryptographic hash (an algorithm serving as a “cybersecurity fingerprint”) and the hash of the previous block to mathematically link the two together. Therefore, each block in the chain is connected to the one after, the one before and all the way back to the original transaction (known as the genesis block). This means that the information contained in any block cannot be altered without changing all subsequent blocks and alerting the record-keepers in the network that foul play has occurred. 


The digital thread was created to replace two-dimensional design and fabrication information, what we know as blueprints, that has traditionally guided a product through its manufacturing lifecycle. However, it requires humans to interpret, translate, re-enter and transmit data at each step. Processes using the digital thread method rely instead on a set of three-dimensional, digitized instructions that can be electronically exchanged and processed from start to finish, saving time, money and the risk of human error. Because the steps in the process are aligned chronologically, just like financial transactions, blockchain is extremely well-suited to provide a digital thread network with the same protection it gives to cryptocurrencies. 


“In other words, if I’m a manufacturer making a part for a product and I receive the specs for that part from the designer who’s upstream in the process, blockchain ensures that I can trust the data actually came from that person, is exactly what he or she sent, and was not interfered with during transmission,” said NIST research associate and computer scientist Sylvere Krima, the lead author of the new report. “Because the chain is tamper resistant and the blocks are time stamped, a blockchain is a robust solution to authenticate data at any point during the product lifecycle.”" 

Securing the Digital Threat for Smart Manufacturing: A Reference Model for Blockchain-Based Product Data Traceability - Sylvere Krima, Thomas Hedberg, Allison Barnard Feeney. This publication is available free of charge from: 


Although the longevity and validity of cryptocurrencies is unknown and difficult to predict, blockchain smart contracts infused into the lifecycle of a product seem to have a strong business case for implementation across the manufacturing spectrum. The world just needs a solution provider to make the (complex) technology easy for engineers, operators and administrators to utilize in their daily work lives, and provide the interface between the technology and the product's production.  


How to Get Started with Manufacturing Innovation or Factory of the Future (FOF) 

"Where do you start on your manufacturing transformation journey to achieve the Factory of the Future? 

Most manufacturers have started some sort of digital transformation initiative to achieve their vision of the factory of the future.  Some are at the beginning of this journey and some are well underway. Where to begin and what to focus on depends largely on your overall business goals and current state of digitization.  Having a long-term vision is just as important as is understanding where your organization currently stands. For example, most of us have heard the old saying that you can’t improve, control or optimize what you don’t measure or have insight into.  

How do you obtain insight into a long-term factory vision? 

A modern MES or MOM is one key foundation to drive manufacturing transformation as is having digital continuity across engineering manufacturing and supply chain within the organization.  Closed-loop optimization via a digital twin of the virtual product design and manufacturing process against the real world execution of manufacturing and continuous optimization of the supply chain optimization is a key goal for many manufacturers to achieve faster NPI, drive agility and efficiency.   

From a recent sponsored study by LNS Research and Dassault Systèmes on the factory of the future titled, “Industrial Transformation is Changing How We Run Our Factories,” it’s noted the FoF is not a checklist of emerging technologies to implement, nor is it a single point in the evolution of manufacturing.  Rather, FoF is the embodiment and realization of Industrial Transformation, encompassing a journey into new technologies and modes of operation that will affect plants globally for decades to come. FoF also does not stand alone. Its focus is inside the four walls of the factory, but its value is in creating a competitive advantage by flexibly and more cost effectively manufacturing smart and connected products that better meet the needs of consumers.”" 

The Journey to the Factory of the Future  -Tom Muth 


At the time of this article, the world is just beginning to get back to business from the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seems oddly ironic to read and research about the topic of "Factory of the Future" because of the contextual difference of the information published before and during the pandemic. Right now, the "Factory of the Future" is a factory that is operated in a manner that resembles Q4 of last year, but once status quo is restored, it will be interesting to see how companies like Dane Manufacturing – which are poised to be stronger coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic than they were entering it – react to innovative technologies that can and will alter the future of factories across the globe.  


One article written prior to the pandemic may actually shed some light on what's to come once the OEM's of the world are able to take a breath and look at COVID-19 from the rearview mirror of their company's history.  


"The U.S. manufacturing industry is entering this new decade in a much different state than when it entered the last. The industry is no longer shaking off the aftereffects of the Great Recession, but it is still grappling with the economic uncertainty that comes with new trade deals and tariffs. There is also the need to keep pace with the ever-increasing speed of technological change. Industry 4.0 and its adoption by U.S. manufacturers has begun to pick up steam, and manufacturing’s digitization is only going to increase. Things like 3D printing, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and smart factories are becoming more commonplace in the U.S. manufacturing industry, emphasizing a deepening need for stronger cybersecurity. 

But as we get excited for the future of manufacturing, it is important that we slow down and look at what the manufacturers themselves are saying. What challenges do U.S. manufacturers anticipate facing in the beginning of the new decade? And how does that differ from the past? 

As part of the annual NIST MEP Survey, we ask MEP Center clients to identify the top three challenges their companies face over the next three years from a pre-determined list. We’ve been asking this question for a little over a decade now and thousands of clients have taken the time to give us their thoughts. The data that the MEP National Network™ has gathered from this question provides a peek into the minds of CEOs. Understanding the business and economic factors that influence companies can help the Network prepare for a new decade of supporting the U.S. manufacturing industry." 

Preparing for a New Decade of U.S. Manufacturing - Nico Thomas 


"...More intriguing are the aggregate capabilities of enabling technologies in the form of smart factories. At their best, the “sum of the parts” of these technologies and processes create flexible systems to self-optimize performance across a broader network of factories, suppliers, and partners. They self-adapt to and learn from new conditions in near-to-real time and autonomously run to ensure production processes. 

Fifty-one percent of the large industrial manufacturing leaders surveyed report one smart factory initiative or use case in place. (Think quality sensing and detecting, factory asset intelligence, and plant consumption and energy management among other applications.) 

So, is this research finding a story of the industry’s glass being half empty or half full when it comes to smart manufacturing? 

There is a case to be made for half empty, partly because the upside from these smart initiatives are more compelling than the adoption levels indicate. On average, companies that introduced smart initiatives have seen gains of more than 10% in the past three years in labor productivity, in factory capacity utilization, and in total output. That benefit doubles for the top quintile of companies – we called them “trailblazers” – where 3 in 5 maintain full smart production lines. 

As in other sectors, digitalization has moved from a peripheral value add into a core, must-have value generator and a yardstick for competitiveness. Eighty-three percent of manufacturing leaders believe smart initiatives will transform the way products are made. It’s hard to argue with productivity and competitiveness." 

Getting ‘Smart’ in Manufacturing - David Beckoff 


So are we headed towards a future of robots, blockchain, AI and employee less factories run by supercomputers? Maybe, but not a likely outcome to expect anytime soon. Although "Factory of the Future" innovations will occur, and will likely be exciting ventures to participate in; there is an undeniable element of human creativity and ingenuity in manufacturing which cannot be automated nor replaced simply by machines.  

At Dane Manufacturing, we've been dedicated to a balance of automation and creativity deployment. Our philosophy remains: Automate the processes that need to be automated; digitize things which enhance people's ability to focus on more productive and creative processes; and most of all – invest in customers' needs. That's been our secret sauce for over 100 years, and is why the history of Dane Manufacturing is a uniquely successful story.