Building the right technology solutions for your manufacturing company

AltaVista was founded in 1995 and ultimately made way for Google, the search engine powerhouse we know and love today. AltaVista became a hit quickly since it could display more search results than any of its competitors. It enabled users to access more data than ever before. 

Unfortunately, AltaVista was purchased by Compaq in 1998 and lost focus. AltaVista tried to become a complex web portal instead of the simple search tool people loved. Instead of consumer guided decisions, Compaq thought it would edge out competitors like Yahoo by building a more comprehensive tool. But, users liked the simplicity of AltaVista’s search function and by complicating the two, it became less useful to users.

The lesson

Building the right technology solution is critical, especially as we move deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Manufacturing continues to become more digital. It’s increasingly influenced by analytics, AI, and the Internet of Things. Technology solutions are no longer a “nice to have,” but a must. 

The importance of technology in manufacturing

Overall, just 20.7 percent of manufacturing organizations surveyed rated themselves as “highly prepared” to address the emerging business models the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here—are you ready?, Deloitte

Do you consider your manufacturing organization a frontrunner in digital? If so, you are part of a small group ready to embrace the future of manufacturing. The truth is that most organizations fall in a category that’s not yet prepared. 

Why should manufacturing organizations care about technology? 

R&D Spending
Artificial Intelligence
Market Growth
By 2021
Advanced Robotics
BY 2021
  • 86% of the top 100 companies in R&D spending worldwide are from the manufacturing industry. (Deloitte)
  • The Artificial Intelligence (AI) market is predicted to grow from $8B in 2016 to $72B in 2021, attaining a 55.1% CAGR. (Deloitte
  • Advanced Robotics spending is predicted to grow from $92B in 2016 to $225B in 2021, attaining a 19.7% CAGR with manufacturing, resource industries, consumer, and healthcare being the largest segments today. (Deloitte)
  • Investment in the Internet of Things (IoT) solutions is predicted to grow from $737B in 2016 to $1.521B in 2021, attaining a 15.6% CAGR. (Deloitte)

It’s clear that technology isn’t slowing down. The only question is whether or not companies will fight to keep up. Creating the right technology solutions is a step in the right direction towards digital transformation. What does this mean, and what challenges do organizations face? 

What is a technology solution?

Hacker Noon defines a solution in this way “a solution is the application of a product to solve a specific industry need or business problem.” I’d like to make a small adjustment so it reads like this: a technology solution is the application of technology to solve a specific industry need or business problem.

A technology solution can affect many parts of the business, from the way a company communicates to its customers to something that helps in the manufacturing process. For example, at Design Center we develop technology solutions with a sales focus. These include tools that help showcase what manufactured products are, help clients understand pricing, configuration, and the value of the products.

A metal coatings company we work with is a good example of a technology solution that solves a manufacturing problem. We helped them build a solution that diagnoses problems on their production line and shares that information among many production facilities. This has helped them reduce downtime and boost productivity. Compared to other solutions this may seem simple, but the ROI is large and continuous. 

The right technology solutions can provide short-term benefits and longevity to your company, but there are a few hurdles. How can you overcome these hurdles and what will the impact be?

“Manufacturers are increasingly pressured to offer a wider range of products and more custom experiences. As such, the opportunities to drive down costs through labor reductions or by buying cheap supplies is diminishing. Companies can’t sacrifice quality, so they have to improve margins through efficiency, which is where digital technologies enter the fray.”

Processes and attitudes that are stuck in the past

As the quote highlights, manufacturers need to provide increasingly custom experiences, and find ways to improve efficiency without sacrificing quality. Innovating through technology is the most cost-effective and sustainable way to do this. The challenge is to make changes, organizations have to get past processes and attitudes that are stuck in the past. The main contributors to resistance are momentum, cost of change, and buy-in.

1. Momentum

Manufacturing has been around a long time. In fact, you can date the industry back to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Add to that, that it’s very much a nuts and bolts industry and you can understand why it’s so hard for people in this field to let go of legacy processes and attitudes. This makes it hard for people to open their minds to what is possible through technology.

2. Cost of change

Making a change in the manufacturing industry is incredibly expensive. This is why car manufacturers only make cosmetic updates to their cars every 3-4 years instead of completely reworking the body styles. They know that the cost to retool a whole production line is too high to undertake more often than every 6-10 years.

Updating technology also has other implications. For example, aside from updating machinery it could include updating large data processes, training, and development. This makes technology solutions just the tip of the iceberg as far as cost goes. 

3. Buy-in

Getting everyone to buy into the change is another challenge, especially when fighting against momentum and the high cost of updating systems in manufacturing. Leaders may question the need to update technology when things are already working. Because of these roadblocks, it’s important to help department leaders understand the importance of change and the long-term vision. 

You may think that once you have buy-in you’re golden. Not so much. Let’s look at some common mistakes that happen when building technology solutions for manufacturing.

Common mistakes when building technology solutions

Building a technology solution is relatively easy, there are plenty of effective processes and vendors who can support you. If this is the case, then why do so many technology solutions miss the mark? It’s because no matter who you are, you can easily fall victim to these common mistakes.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is not taking into account other aspects of the business. It’s important that we recognize that any piece of technology is part of a larger system. If it doesn’t serve its purpose within that process or take into account what comes before and after, then it will likely cause more harm than good.

For example, in manufacturing you could reason that a change to production line technology only affects affects the production line. But, that’s not entirely true. Imagine that the change affects the performance of the product. If the updated product is sold before sales & marketing can update their materials or before the learning and development team has a chance to train people on how to sell the product, it could cause major issues. What was supposed to only affect the production line actually affects how a product can/should be sold.

This type of misalignment has a ripple effect across the organization. When buy-in and alignment don’t happen in advance, it can stop a project in its tracks and cause it to completely miss the mark.

Another mistake organizations make when building technology solutions is being too short-sighted. This is really a mindset problem. Organizations might feel like they’re buying the solution, instead of a process that needs to be reviewed and evolved over time. This means that they’ll allocate money to make the change but won’t allocate money to monitor, review, and update it to keep them relevant.

Hardly any of us use technology that was used 50 years ago. The first Macintosh computer was created in 1984, and we’d be unable to use that machine for any modern computing task. All technology is iterative. Only when organizations adopt and embrace this will they allocate budget and plan accordingly to make the change successful. After all, the goal isn’t solely to build a new tool, it’s to protect their business’ future.

Why do technology vendors allow these mistakes to happen?

A poll on vendor relationships by Tech Pro Research found “most respondents said their company works with at least one vendor, and 47 percent said their company uses more than 10.”

Sometimes vendors have to fit into a strategy that the company has already set. Their job is to finish a specific task that was decided on long before they became involved and they don’t have the option to dig deeper and course correct. Because of the nature of the relationship they’re forced to be short-sighted and aren’t fully equipped to handle the problems that are table stakes in technology solution development. What worsens this scenario?

  • When clients are afraid to admit that they don’t know what they need. This creates a situation where they’re bringing on a vendor for a specific solution, which may not be the right answer. 
  • Vendors have an extract income mindset vs. an add value mindset. Some vendors want the long-term solution, even if it doesn’t solve the problem since it’s advantageous for their bottom line. 
  • Vendors don’t know how to solve the problem. They lack the internal expertise, or the industry knowledge to help their client. 

The solution to these problems is a value-driven mindset. When vendors are focused on adding value first they won’t be willing to start projects that don’t lead to business outcomes. They also won’t take on work if they don’t have the expertise to solve the underlying business issues through technology. In essence, they are trying to build trust, not just revenue. 

A good technology partner understands that the solutions they build aren’t the whole package. They are just the tip of digital transformation. 

What is needed from the vendor in both mindset and capabilities to solve customer technology problems?

The first requirement is that vendors can’t go in with the solution and try to apply it to whatever problem the client is currently facing. Instead, they must work to fully understand the problem and then craft the solution.

This is a big differentiator between the software-as-a-service model (SaaS) and a custom software model. With SaaS, you’re always going to have to bend the process or the demand to fit the tool. Whereas with custom software you can tailor the solution to the specific needs. You may ultimately bend some of the demands, but that will be due to other factors learned along the way and not the limitations of the software.

The next component is integrity. The vendor needs to have the integrity to solve the problem in the best way. This may not be the most convenient, comfortable, or profitable option for the vendor, but it’s what will provide the most value to the client long-term.

In order to solve unknown technology problems for the client, it’s crucial that the vendor has a broad set of skills. This will enable them not only to identify the problem and craft a solution, but also to implement the solution successfully.

How do these problems fit into an overall need for digital transformation?

In modern manufacturing, nothing exists in a silo.

What does this mean for you? When creating a technology solution for the sales department, it’s impossible to ignore other departments. Leaders can no longer conclude “this is a sales tool, so we only need buy-in and input from the sales department.” Any new solution will have ripple effects across the organization and therefore needs organizational buy-in, not just departmental buy-in.

Bringing your company into the digital age is an iterative process. Almost every software solution we use on a daily basis is iterative, so why would you expect a static process at your company?

Think about HubSpot, the sales and marketing software giant. HubSpot deploys more than 300 updates to their software every day. While most manufacturing companies don’t have to worry about the large user base or range of software that HubSpot does, they would be remiss to think they can create technology solutions one time and be done with it.

Digital transformation is daunting. It affects every part of your business and the iterative process could look never-ending. But, these seemingly negative traits can have positive and healthy effects in your organization. For example, consider how its ripple effect benefits your organization.

of CEO's

56% of CEOs said digital improvements have led to revenue growth.

First and foremost, technology solutions have a direct impact on an organization’s bottom line. But, it does so much more. When a technology solution starts gaining momentum, adoption rises, and people start to shift their mindset. Instead of a resistant attitude, they start to ask what this solution can do for them. This shift in mindset ultimately takes what was a solution for one department and starts to benefit the company more holistically.

To help companies create technology solutions, partners must be digital detectives

To help clients get to the heart of their problems digital partners need to be detectives. While many might admire the technical or problem-solving skills of a detective, the chief skill of a master detective is investigation and communication. The same goes for digital partners as the first step to any project is getting a complete picture of what the need is.

What’s involved in getting this complete picture? It means involving as many people as needed, with as many disciplines as possible. This helps overcome the figurative silo that most employees work in. Because of departmental leaders’ focus, it’s easy to lose touch with how changes can affect the organization as a whole. Getting everyone in the same room helps solve that problem.

Once everyone is in the room, it’s critical to dig deep and find the root issue. Since the root issue is not typically on the surface, partners have to peel back a few layers to get to the cause. Like a detective, this requires strong communication and using processes similar to the Five Whys to dig deeper.

Uncovering more than one problem

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a large organization, it’s likely that in the discovery process, multiple problems will be uncovered. All of which will vary in importance to different department leaders. This creates a new challenge for companies: Unifying your team on the problems the company should focus on first.

Without consensus, it’s difficult to gain enough traction and momentum for a successful project. Leaders need to get consensus on which problems will have the most impact on the organization as a whole. The key is to unify the team by focusing on the organization as a whole and not on individual departments.

To help companies to get to the heart of their problems and develop solutions that support the long-term vision, partners need strong processes. A process we use at Design Center to help clients do just that is called Envisioning.

Design Center Envisioning

Where does a process like Envisioning fit in?

Envisioning is a set of processes designed to help clients get to the heart of the need and fully understand it before trying to craft a solution. Envisioning is part of the discovery process, where we dig deep to identify the root of the problem. It also includes user research and setting business ROI objectives. This helps set expectations and give context to how what we’re doing is related to the larger vision.

The envisioning workshop helps Design Center to define the long-range vision of what success looks like and break that vision into digestible chunks and make actionable plans to get it done. From there, we’re able to optimize, add more functionality, learn, and repeat. The tactics may change, but when companies define a long-term vision they stay on track even when they have to adjust their roadmap.

Establishing the vision is just the start. What happens once you’ve identified the problem and developed the solution? How will you know you’re headed in the right direction?

When and how will you know if you’ve built the right solution?

The simple answer is once it’s being used. Adoption is a strong indicator that the change you’ve made is a successful one. This is also when you can figure out how much of the solution was correct. Creating technology solutions is an iterative learning process. So, while your overall vision may be correct, how you get there will likely change along the way.

Also, early on it’s important to identify the metrics that will equal success. These metrics could include things like adoption, generated revenue, and hours saved. The goal is to choose metrics that align with your desired outcome. It’s also crucial that you establish a baseline for your metrics. This will give you a starting point and help you measure results. As you measure results you adjust and optimize based on what’s working and what’s not.

Besides proving the value of your initiative, metrics play another important role. They give your team the push it needs to follow through. In the early stages of a project it’s rare to see glaringly positive results. By tracking and sharing progress with the team leaders can sustain momentum throughout the project.

Building the right technology solutions for your organization

In the Deloitte study referenced earlier, Deloitte describes manufacturing frontrunners this way “Frontrunners strongly believe in the business value of adopting new technology solutions for digital transformation and are ready to use the new technologies.”

Does that statement describe your organization? In this guide, we’ve seen how building the right technology solution follows this process:

  • Educating your organization on the value of technology to the future of manufacturing companies.
  • Uncovering the core issues that could be solved with technology, and prioritizing these based on impact.
  • Finding a technology partner who wants to create value for its clients and has the skills to implement the solutions you need.

When you embrace the need for digital transformation, you’ve taken the first step into becoming a frontrunner in your industry. But, you don’t have to do it alone. Design Center helps clients like 3M and Home Depot create the tools they need to reach business outcomes. Are you ready to reach yours? Fill out the form below and a team member will reach out to discuss your business and its objectives.

Let’s discuss your vision today.

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