According to Tim Rushent the latest digital revolution is personal – and it’s coming to manufacturing

The digital revolution that has swept retail over the last decade – making fortunes for the innovative and adaptable but consigning others to history – is coming to manufacturing, and it looks like being just as disruptive. Personalisation is the new trend, and it can offer a huge sales boost while simultaneously helping to make processes more efficient.

To understand the challenge it is worth considering internet shopping, which has rapidly moved from being essentially a cheap catalogue system to one that harnesses vast quantities of data so it can rapidly adapt to customer needs and trends. In its latest phase this strategy has evolved further, with increasingly large amounts of information on each individual customer being built up and used to offer unprecedented levels of personalised service.

Despite concerns over privacy, the system is popular with consumers: In a recent survey that underscores the potential impact of the strategy for manufacturers, 62 per cent of shoppers said they dig deeper into their pockets when the retail experience is personalised. And personalisation is not only relevant to consumer-facing industries – it also allows far more integrated and accountable products to be offered to business customers, too, as they in turn expect their specific demands to be met.

Of the internet retailers, Amazon in particular has mastered the new game, with four out of five UK consumers believing that no company offers the same levels of web-personalisation as the American books-to-beds retailer. Amazon is also able to leverage its unprecedented knowledge of individual customers to work with third party suppliers, connecting restaurants and entertainment venues with people of the right demographic, in the right geographical area, and tailoring offers to their spending power and habits.

Such an approach necessitates taking control of the data flowing back from consumers and managing it effectively. For manufacturers, it may be an even more complicated process than it is for internet retailers, as the data must be made available to managers, designers and sales staff throughout the Production system, and inputs from each must be passed on to others. However, this can be achieved by using an enterprise content management (ECM) system that will also help executives spot and tackle inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

Already manufacturers in the low-volume high-margin bracket are embracing personalisation. Premium automotive is leading the way. Marques like BMW and Jaguar Land Rover are responding to demand by offering vehicles that integrate with their customers’ tablets and phones. Not only can every last detail of a new car be chosen by the buyer, but sales departments are working closely with technical departments to devise new features with which to enthuse customers. Thus, manufacturing operations see customer feedback integrated into the design process, so that a new product resembles as closely as possible the desires of the consumer. The automotive industry has therefore come full circle since Henry Ford’s pioneering mass production system of the early twentieth century, which was based on the premise of that every single car that rolled off his assembly line was identical, and famously, the same colour.

The dramatic changes that are putting premium carmakers through their paces will be felt across global manufacturing within the next two to four years. Where premium products have gone, higher-volume lower-margin products are set to follow. In particular, those offering consumer goods to the growing global market of middle class, tech-savvy buyers look likely to benefit from a more personalised approach. Not only do consumers expect it, but also personalisation can allow ambitious smaller firms to gain market share from bigger incumbents without the need for expensive and risky advertising campaigns. For example, mobile phone manufacturers could use personalisation to challenge Apple’s minimalist, Henry Ford-esque dominance at the top of the value chain. Apparel makers may abandon their traditional seasonal ranges and opt for a more responsive approach, tailoring new lines to the latest craze and making garments compatible with a variety of electronic devices.

The process involved in adapting a manufacturing operation so that it is capable of personalisation is relatively risk free, as it is also beneficial to the wider operation and a likely part of eventual modernisation. The necessary customer data is almost certainly already available but lying idle. If a firm hasn’t already, it should embrace full digitisation and introduce ECM: digitisation means the information can be harnessed, and ECM allows it to be used strategically.

In order to take a true end-to-end view of how it delivers its products, a company must develop a structure that allows its departments to be tightly joined together. Technology needs can no longer be dictated or even solely provided by internal IT departments. Instead, sophisticated systems will ensure seamless sharing of the vast volumes of data needed to stay up-to date with the demands of sales departments and ultimately consumers. The benefits of such an effective data platform can also be extended up and down the supply chain.

A manufacturer can look at the weaknesses in its current processes and use the system to solve the problems that are creating bottlenecks and slowing the flow of information and goods. It may be that design teams are wasting time looking for information, or that specific components are not reaching the relevant part of the production line fast enough after changes are made. Perhaps prototypes are not working as well as they should, or feedback on them is lacking. ECM systems can be targeted at the source of inefficiencies and allow solutions to be found by taking charge of the flow of information.

At the same time, a purely digital document trail reduces the need for manual intervention and, therefore, the number of errors. And by bringing previously unmanageable data under a single system that is easy to access by all those who need to, it allows a better strategic overview of all processes, making the organisation nimble enough to adapt to the pace of client demand.

The implementation of ECM can be swift and need not be disruptive: a system can – and should – be installed within days and fully rolled out to the workforce within weeks. And it does not force a new IT on anyone: it works with existing programmes and applications with which staff are already familiar. Indeed, it can bring works processes onto devices such as tablets and smartphones and ensure managers and other key staff can see and react to changes instantly, wherever they are.

The key aspect of both personalisation and ECM is that they unlock the creativity inherent in a manufacturing firm. Because it links many existing processes and allows much more effective internal communication, staff will adapt a new system to their needs and discover new opportunities for the organisation as a whole. Meanwhile, the firm will also be able to adapt to the even greater creative forces of the wider market and ever more demanding clients and consumers.

Tim Rushent

Tim RushentTim Rushent is director, industry and commerce, with Hyland, creator of OnBase. Hyland is a leading global developer of flexible and comprehensive enterprise content (ECM) products. OnBase helps organisations manage documents and data to streamline business operations. Integrating with everyday business applications, OnBase provides instant access to critical information, wherever, whenever.