When video engineers from RCA, Zenith, and other competitors first proposed a digital HDTV system in the late 1980s, they were ridiculed. The idea that a high-definition signal could be digitally compressed to be smaller than a standard-definition analog signal was deemed absurd by many.
Today, digital technologies are ubiquitous, from lamps that can emit as much light from a diode the size of a pencil point as can an entire incandescent filament, to factories that digitally control every part of the manufacturing process to cut costs and reduce production time.
Technology is often no longer the barrier. Rather, it’s the proper application of existing digital technologies that has become key.
That is certainly true when we consider the digitalization of factories. The question isn’t whether a factory should be digitized and connected, but how.
For example, General Mills, the maker of some of the world’s most popular cereals, needed to adapt to changing consumer tastes and manufacture gluten-free products. In order to prevent cross-contamination between their various grains, the company digitized their processes and cut ingredients costs by $20 million.
Harley-Davidson, the maker of the all-American motorcycle, needed to increase its responsiveness to changing customer model demand. They overhauled their pre-World War II factories and brought in digital control systems, automated guided vehicles, industrial tablets and other systems. The result: a 50 percent swing in production and a 91 percent reduction in injuries.
At Celestica, we are connecting, coordinating and continuously optimizing our equipment, people and processes to enable orchestration of our factories and supply chains. Our efforts must deliver better cost, quality, and delivery.
Connecting machines optimizes and links equipment and processes to minimize variation and improve quality and first-pass yield.  We’re also bringing data analysis down to the micro level, by using sensors throughout the production process to check for motion, proximity, temperature, and other variables that unlock new insights into factory performance.
Additionally, augmented reality and cyberphysical systems play a significant role in the digital factory of tomorrow. Workers are outfitted with technology that can see and analyze their work spaces to ensure processes and materials are correctly applied at the point of value. A process as simple as the torqueing of a screw can be ensured to be done correctly by using smart torque drivers and specialized vision systems that can “see” the workspace.
Across the manufacturing ecosystem companies are using predictive analytics to determine when equipment will fail and take corrective action before it does. Some are beginning to investigate digital twin technology — creating virtual models of products and processes that can be manipulated and tested prior to making their physical counterparts — allowing error correction before manufacturing.
Gartner named the digital twin paradigm one of the top 10 technology trends for 2017. It’s been widely used in the automotive and process manufacturing industries for years, with designers confirming optimum performance on a computer prior to investing in costly machines and factory construction.
In the end, we need to recognize the growing significance of factory digitization, automation and AI, and how these tools can take individuals out of the most mundane, repetitive tasks, so we can leverage the curiosity and insight intrinsic to humans to further improve our factories and supply chains.
Todd Cooper is Celestica’s Chief Operations Officer. This article was prepared in partnership with Celestica. It is the third of a three-part series focused on Smart Cities, Disruption to Supply Chains, and Digital Factories.