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Industry: do digital tools really boost performance?

In principle, everyone is in favour of making greater use of digital technology in industry. In practice, though, it is not so easy to make the change and some people remain unconvinced that digital tools will actually benefit their company’s performance. Industrial systems expert Jean Vieille presents an observation model for the smart factory and an ongoing approach to its digital transformation, with the ultimate objective of improving overall company performance.


How would you define the smart factory?

My nutshell definition of intelligence is “the ability of a living being to successfully remain so”. In practice, intelligence is the product of two factors: interactions between subsets (people, services, machines, etc.) and the individual intelligence of these same subsets, both of which are directly supported by computer technology. In industrial companies, a distinction is often made between two fields of computer technology, namely information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT).


IT, OT, what’s the difference?

OT is about automation. Its purpose is to ensure that the production system (the plant, workshops and machines) works efficiently and safely to correctly deliver the products and services. IT meets all of the other requirements of the company’s operational processes.

If we take the example of an aircraft, IT is used to handle passenger ticketing, flight scheduling and so on. OT, on the other hand, controls the aircraft’s equipment, such as the braking system, control surfaces and engines, so that they obey the commands transmitted to them. OT also controls the physical processes involved in getting the aircraft to fly and guiding it to its destination, such as check-list processing, the navigation system, autopilot, etc. The link between IT and OT depends on being able to manage the physical processes that standardise communication with the aircraft and allow the control tower to interact with it, whatever brand or model it might be.


How do the new digital tools boost performance in our factories?

The new digital tools improve connectivity between data sources and databases, processing units and human interfaces. They can process information more efficiently by combining the ability to process large volumes of data (Big Data) and the development of forms of artificial intelligence (such as optimisation algorithms) that complement and stimulate human intelligence.

  |  Performance management makes it possible to focus the company’s efforts to take advantage of these technologies for the benefit of the collective intelligence. Performance is easier to manage locally, but it needs to factor in the impact of the behaviours it induces at a broader level. For example, optimising a pump’s energy efficiency can have a detrimental effect on that of the network it services.


So these new tools are factors for the company’s transformation?

Companies are in a state of permanent change if we consider reorganisation initiatives, staff skills development, investment in plant, new product developments and so on. On one hand, IT must support and assist these changes without impeding them, and on the other hand, evolve and change. There is a constant stream of innovations, and increasingly varied and intense interaction. The markets are demanding increasingly speedy adaptation. I therefore advise my customers to treat digital transformation as part of a process of continual change, attuned to the real needs and on the lookout for opportunities of all types. Digital transformation is not a Big Bang project. It’s an permanent business process that has never stopped.


Are there already tangible benefits for companies?

Manufacturing companies can grasp the full added value of these new technologies, such as Blu.e’s Big Data energy efficiency solution. On the one hand, they streamline companies’ traditional tasks: they automate reporting, feed real-time dashboards and save time. But they also carry out new tasks: they anticipate downtime, provide dynamic context-sensitive help, ensure digital continuity from design to use of the machine, a virtual clone and end-to-end traceability. And these new ways of working make people smarter and proud of their work!


About Jean Vieille

Independent consultant Jean Vieille specialises in informational support for industrial systems. He guides and supports corporate accounts and SMEs through their digital transformation. Backed by a systemic view of industry, he places computer systems within a broader vision of company performance and intelligence.