A digital transformation project can enhance productivity and growth, but a dynamic digital strategy is crucial to its success. By Dr Andy Levers

Digital tools such as advanced modelling and simulation and immersive visualisation can help organisations solve complex industry problems and enable increased productivity and growth. However, with even major players like Nike and Lego seeing their multi-million-pound digitalisation projects fail, it pays to look beyond the technology and recognise that the real value in enabling business performance is through the creation of digital strategies, business plans and roadmaps.

A digital strategy, which is fully integrated across every company department and function, and comprises long-term plans for change along with ‘small steps’ technological implementation, can greatly improve an organisation’s speed to market for their product and services and add new value to the product lifecycle. The creation of new systems and processes can also drive down operational costs and enhance price competitiveness and profitability.

Industry 4.0 is essentially about re-imagining your organisations business and operations model, and thinking about the possibilities to change the way you do things given the digital tools available, allowing the business to keep pace with the changes in its competitive environment.

This can be daunting, particularly for SMEs, but there is a wealth of expertise, unbiased advice and practical support that companies can tap into to help them develop and deploy a robust digital strategy to drive their change project forward. For example, not-for-profit digital impact centres such as the Virtual Engineering Centre, which is part of the University of Liverpool, offer targeted digital transformation support to SMEs through the £3.9 million LCR4 START initiative.

The positive impact of a well delivered, dynamic digital transformation strategy can be swift and significant, as thermal engineering specialist Genlab discovered when it worked in partnership with the VEC.

Case Study – Genlab
Background
For over 50 years, Genlab has designed and manufactured industrial and laboratory ovens, incubators, drying cabinets, water baths and other associated thermal products.

The company has three divisions providing a product range noted for its quality, reliability and performance. It has supplied products to almost every country in the world and has many longstanding employees whose combined technical knowledge has helped make it one of the leading businesses in thermal engineering.

Genlab recognised the opportunity of employing a variety of new technologies within the business but did not have the capacity or the specialist knowledge to explore how new tools could support a push toward greater efficiency and new innovation.

It wanted to explore how the existing factory layout and current processes could be optimised to improve efficiency and meet growing customer demand for its products, without compromising its handcrafted approach or having to make greater financial investments.

Partner support
Liverpool University’s Virtual Engineering Centre worked with Genlab to evaluate how the highly skilled but traditional approaches it currently employed could benefit from new digital technologies.

Opportunities for innovation included the use of the Industrial Internet of Things for preventative maintenance, exploring improved connectivity of products, and how the current factory layout and manufacturing process could be changed to improve productivity. The business produces highly customised products, with complex components and processes. The current processes are not highly automated and the challenge was to look for methods to empower a highly skilled workforce with new information for rapid and better decision making.

Working closely with Genlab, the VEC studied the existing floor plan and factory machine layout, evaluating process times at different workstations. Using this high-level production data and layouts, the VEC created a full model factory simulation using specialist software, SIMIO. The results enabled Genlab to explore alternative layouts, helping them to understand which layout gained maximum efficiency.

Benefits
Using a virtual factory model allowed Genlab to complete this task without risk or interruption to daily operations, as well as allowing them to test a number of solutions quickly and easily.

The factory simulation provided insight into optimum staffing levels and demonstrated how to better deploy staff to maximise throughput and predict the consequences of staffing shortages throughout weekly production.

The simulation also confirmed that a change in the position and layout of just the stores area could improve output by five per cent per annum. The simulation highlighted ways that Genlab could improve assembly time by 30 minutes, which resulted in an increase in capacity of 20 per cent without any additional investment in new tools or automation.

Working to the future
Genlab has identified a number of opportunities for change within its existing factory layout which allows them to remove any constraints and improve efficiency and productivity levels, offering easier access to machinery and improved communication.

Based on the real time quality data now being collected, Genlab can improve the visibility of work in progress. This will allow it to optimise its operations with supply chain partners, reducing lead times between the company and its customers.

This approach paves the way for future innovation by highlighting how and where to collect further valuable data from, giving operational managers greater insight for improved production planning and future changes to processes, to increase productivity even further.

Phil Crompton Finance Director at Genlab said: “Working with the VEC has introduced the company to a no-nonsense approach to adopting new digital tools as a means to improve productivity.

“Factory simulation has brought into focus and validated our ambitions to grow the business. We have explored new possibilities without the risk that normally comes with change management by using virtual tools, and identified the path to a 20 per cent increase in productivity using the factory simulation.

“With the VEC’s support, Genlab is excited to explore how Industrial IoT & virtual prototyping can further help us create a new generation of products and to better meet our automotive and industrial clients’ demand.”

Dr Andy Levers
Dr Andy Levers is Executive Director of the University of Liverpool’s Virtual Engineering Centre. With a strong industrial background within the aerospace sector, he sets the strategic and technical direction for the Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC) and Digital Innovation Facility (DIF), that sit within the University of Liverpool’s IDEAS (Institute of Digital Engineering and Autonomous Systems).
www.virtualengineeringcentre.com