How Industry 4.0 Can Transform Small Manufacturing Businesses

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Industry 4.0 sounds like one of those buzzwords that’s more focused on big companies, rather than smaller businesses. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

But behind the term is a world of affordable but potentially transformative technology. Technology that could sustain your business in difficult times, and help it thrive in the good times.

“So what?” I hear you ask.

Well, if you are like many small business owners, you’re still working long after everyone else has gone home. Paperwork, quotes, technical queries no-one else can answer. And then there’s the stuff in the ‘too hard’ category, that’s pushed to the back of your mind. But it’s the kind of thing that keeps you up at night. Sales Pipeline, Cashflow, Competition, Quality, Team Effectiveness.

How do you keep on top of all these moving parts?

Industry 4.0 is a collection of opportunities that could have the answer.

And, for a small business employing talented people, it could be the key to unlocking their value potential, avoiding low value manual admin, and focusing on better profitability and customer satisfaction.

Industry 3.0 saw technology transform the way we work, but we’re now seeing the pitfalls of that first wave of technology. For example, Email and Spreadsheets dominate small businesses, and whilst they are vastly flexible and helpful, the hidden cost of these technologies is huge.

Whether it’s wasted time, duplication of effort, errors, constant distraction, or over-reliance on human intervention, these basic technologies of Industry 3.0 have become a barrier to growth and sustainability for small businesses.

These tools tend to create ‘data silos’. These silos see individuals or teams handling different versions of the same information, often out of sync, often incomplete, and usually impossible for owners/directors to keep on top of.

9 Industry 4.0 Success Factors For Small Businesses

How Industry 4.0 Can Transform Small Manufacturing Businesses

With Industry 4.0 we are witnessing a range of smarter, yet still affordable technologies that are available to small businesses, bringing the information you need to make decisions into one place.

1# Cloud Software For Every Niche

Enterprise software used to be expensive, clunky and over-complicated, usually beyond both the budget and requirements of small businesses. It was also typically ‘one size fits all’ and required lots of expensive development, or external work-arounds to make it work in specific industries.

Today there is affordable, sector specific software for almost every industry and / or business model. These systems focus on niche industries, and are therefore better suited to the needs of that industry.

They are usually available for a monthly subscription, with limited upfront investment and free trials. This means you can try different systems and find the one that best suits your business process, without committing huge upfront costs to a system that mightn’t work.

2# Joined Up Thinking

Another principle of Industry 4.0 is joined-up, rather than silo-based thinking. Many organisations suffer from silo-based thinking. Industry 4.0 encourages us to step back and look at our overall business process, the value chain for the customer, as well as market trends.

This usually reveals opportunities to streamline processes and adopt smarter methods and business models that serve customers better, and more profitably.

Combined with modern cloud software, joined-up thinking enables more automated flow of data through the business process, saving time and money.

3# Internet of Things

Cloud-connected devices are everywhere, and they can help us gather data about processes. Common in factory settings for example, simple devices and sensors can monitor machine performance and help avoid unplanned downtime.

Whether it’s remote working, retail environments, constructions, manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture and food production, you’ll find novel, connected devices that capture data, support workflow, and improve efficiency and effectiveness of processes. As with cloud software, the key is experimenting with low-cost solutions to find the right tools for your business.

In addition to sensors, robotics, autonomous vehicles, additive manufacturing tools like 3D printing have become more affordable, accessible and connected. What could they do for your business?

4# Data At Your Fingertips

We often rely on our gut, on instinct and past experiences to make decisions, and this is often because we can’t get information to support these decisions.

Whether it’s locked in people’s heads, spreadsheets, or other silo-systems, it takes too long to assemble data. Industry 4.0 systems organise data, and make it easy to generate reports.

5# Industry 4.0 Challenges

All of this sounds great, but as a small business where do we start? Where do you find the inspiration, time and skills to get the most out of these new tools?

It starts at the top.

If you are the business owner, you’ll have a vision of the future. Whether you have 5, 15 or 50 employees, they need to know where they are going, and many technology projects fail due to a lack of real buy-in from leadership.

6# Understand Your Business

The first part of any change, is about understanding where you are now. As a small business, pragmatism is essential, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The beauty about Industry 4.0 technologies is the ability to experiment, and find solution that will add real value.

So, by working with your team, across the departmental functions, to map out your existing business processes, you’ll identify areas where Industry 4.0 tools can make a difference.

7# Experiment & Plan To Fail

Having identified areas for improvement, you can identify potential solutions. Take it one step at a time, and where possible trial these solutions before committing. Yes, this will take time, but that initial investment is worth it to find the right solution.

We often hear stories of companies who sunk thousands into a system that doesn’t work for them. This shouldn’t happen if you do your preparation, understand your requirements and experiment until you find the best fit solution.

8# “We Don’t Have The Skills”

Many companies complain that they lack ‘digital skills’ to adopt technology, and whilst this is a valid concern, it can often be overstated.

We underestimate the amount of technology we already use both in our business and personal loves. Modern technology is usually much more user-friendly than the old enterprise systems we might have come across.

Again the key to success is to first understand your own business process, and your requirements. This gives clarity as to what will work, and you can have confidence in trialing solutions.

If you do need to hire, look for someone who’s come from a slightly larger organisation. They’ll typically have experience of using systems, and providing you empower them, will have the confidence to drive the change in your business.

9# “Our People Will Never Change”

For people in the front-line, Industry 4.0 sounds like one of those management buzzwords designed to create more work, not less. In fact, Industry 4.0 tools will typically save them time away from manual repetitive tasks and give them more time for fulfilling and higher value activities.

The key is to get early buy-in for the change process by understanding what a typical day looks like for individuals, listening to their complaints about the process and their ideas for improvement.

This ties into the business process mapping step outlined above. By giving people a voice, they will gain a sense of ownership in the future solution.

Finally, projects like this must be led from the top. Most business IT projects fail because leaders simply don’t buy in. Small businesses can’t afford this risk. As a leader you must be ready to embrace the change, work through the initial learning curve, and reap the benefits.

Industry 4.0 for All

Industry 4.0 is an opportunity for all businesses to become more sustainable and profitable, and for people to focus their time and energy on valuable activities.

Further, Industry 4.0 provides a vast array of tools and data that can support more efficient ways of working, and new business models. Industry 4.0 is a new chapter for teams to work together to create great customer experiences, build loyalty and sustainable profits.

Author Bio:

Rich Dale

Rich Dale is CEO of Flowlens, a cloud-based CRM, MRP and Service software system designed for small equipment manufacturing businesses, and dealers. With a single database of customers, suppliers, parts, stock, orders and products, Flowlens provides a joined-up system to reduce wasted effort, and get more time for business growth.