Dr. Andreas Schroeder (Aston University), Dr. Yang Zhao (Aston University) and Dan Andrews (Aston University)
Digitalisation offers significant opportunities for manufacturers. By leveraging digital technologies and data, manufacturers can generate substantial efficiency gains in their own processes, create new forms of value for their customers, and develop innovative business models. These digitalisation opportunities are critical to address the productivity and sustainability demands the manufacturing industry is facing.
Although the range of opportunities digitalisation offers to the manufacturing industry is widely recognized it is of concern that only 35% of surveyed firms have adopted digitalisation solutions at scale. One of the root causes of the lack of adoption in the UK is the lack of investment. According to the Manufacturing Digital Productivity Report from iBASEt, 94% of UK manufacturers believe their industry has already fallen behind the US because of a lack of investment into digitalisation, and more than half of UK manufacturers are losing sales as a result. It is even more worrying that 93% of respondents expect that this lack of investment into digitalisation will lead to many UK manufacturers going out of business in the next decade.
To help manufacturers invest effectively in digitalisation, it is important to understand the range of challenges manufacturers commonly face. Only then can the appropriate solutions be identified and put in place. Aston University used a systematic review method to study the challenges for manufacturers and identify critical questions. The results are summarised in Table 1 and discussed below.
|Digitalisation goals||The lack of agreement on the goals of digitalisation encumbers the investment process.|
|The lack of ambitions in the goals of digitalisation limits the leaders’ ability to justify significant investments.|
|Investment process||Digitalisation integrates a wide scope of investment domains which makes it difficult to apply established processes to assess and prioritise investments.|
|The metrics used to evaluate business cases for investment do not relate to the opportunities that are particular to digitalisation.|
|Digital technology attributes||The high cost of digitalisation and the high uncertainty of return make it difficult to justify investments.|
|The rapid innovation (and obsolescence) of digital technology acts as a discouragement to making substantial investments.|
|People and their expertise||The lack of expertise on acquiring external funding for digitalisation creates an investment barrier.|
|The lack of senior leaders with digitalisation expertise hampers investments into digitalisation.|
|Organisational culture||The difficulty of accepting investment uncertainties inhibits investments into digitalisation.|
|The lack of openness and trust creates barriers to making effective investments into digitalisation.|
|Business network||The lack of digital readiness of the wider network limits investments into digitalisation.|
|The lack of experienced or relevant finance partners reduces the opportunities for making investments into digitalisation.|
In manufacturing, digitalisation affects a wide range of stakeholders and they all feed into the development of the goals. The lack of a specific and widely agreed goal is a critical barrier to making investments into digitalisation.
Digitalisation offers manufacturers opportunities to significantly change how they operate, what kind of relationship they have with their customers, what products or services they offer and who they offer these to. However, many manufacturers restrict their goals to incremental changes and, therefore, struggle to justify making the necessary investments.
Digitalisation cuts across established investment categories as it involves aspects of R&D, employee training, and education, as well as the acquisition and implementation of technology solutions. The multi-dimensional nature of digitalisation challenges the traditional investment processes of manufacturers.
Manufacturers traditionally rely on internal rates of return or net present values to justify their investment decisions, and these are not well suited to the possibility of dynamically adjusting an investment after it has been initiated. With digitalisation opening future and potentially unknown opportunities, metrics are required that reflect the flexibility to adjust an investment, change a technology or even abandon it.
Digital technology attributes
The research identified the high costs of required technologies as a major reason that manufacturers do not carry out investments into digitalisation. The cost of technology is particularly high to early adopters, before economies of scale are achieved. Furthermore, while digital solutions are highly scalable, the returns on investments are limited if scale is not achieved.
The pace at which digital technologies develop is unprecedented. Any technology manufacturers choose could become outdated rapidly and require updating, which increases costs. Manufacturers may, therefore, decide to wait for the next digital technology generation to become available or for further standards to emerge before making investments.
People and their expertise
To make significant investments requires manufacturers to raise external finance; but manufacturers often lack the expertise to raise external finance for investments into digitalisation, which significantly differs from raising finance for investments into capital equipment: it requires different funders, business case details and preparations.
Also, decisions on investments in production machinery are often made at the plant level, and are aligned with responsibilities for performance and quality. As digitalisation affects the direction of manufacturers, with implications for their customers and wider networks, identifying the right locus of decision-making is critical for making effective investments. It requires a senior leader with the authority and expertise to make such wide-reaching decisions.
Creating value with digital technologies requires product and process experimentation following test-learn-tweak cycles. Organisations need to develop a ‘tolerance for uncertainty’ to make effective investment decisions within this context. For manufacturers with limited R&D activities, dealing with these uncertainties is particularly difficult.
Although digitalisation will require changes in organisational roles and processes, the creativity and imagination of staff members across the organisation need to be drawn on to capture the opportunities presented. It is critical to ensure that digitalisation is not perceived as a cost-cutting exercise aiming to create redundancies to ensure the widespread support and effectiveness of investments.
It is not only the manufacturer’s own investment into digitalisation but also that of their customer and wider network that is critical to making an effective business case. Ultimately, value is co-created by the customer and the wider network, and if these parties do not make investments into digitalisation themselves then the manufacturer’s chances of deriving a return from their investments are reduced.
Making investments into digitalisation also puts a focus on the external finance partner as a member of the network. Finance partners are often overlooked in industrial value networks, but in a digitalisation context their role is critical. This is because these partners are not just financing a machine but also a business process or business development, which requires a much closer relationship.
Making effective investments into digitalisation is a critical challenge for manufacturers. These investments not only determine the success of current digitalisation initiatives but also affect the viability of future digitalisation journeys. It is today’s investments into digitalisation that enable the future competitiveness of the manufacturing industry. Manufacturers need to rethink their established investment processes and organisational practices as many of them stand in the way of making effective investment decisions into digitalisation.