How digital transformation delivers bottom-line benefits for manufacturers

Digital transformation can help companies realize long-term business benefits, but it takes dedication and strategy to actually transform.

By John Clemons May 25, 2023
Courtesy: Rockwell Automation


Learning Objectives

  • Understand digital transformation’s potential role in manufacturing’s present and future.
  • Learn why some companies have been resistant to digital transformation.
  • Learn about what transformative benefits digital transformation can deliver.

Digital transformation insights

  • Digital transformation enables manufacturing companies to accelerate business growth through digital technologies to transform operations.
  • Many manufacturers are running pilot projects to see how digital transformation can improve operations, but pilot digital transformation projects may not be designed to realize long-term success.

Digital transformation is two words for a whole host of ideas centered around digital technologies and tools. Digital transformation initiatives help manufacturing companies accelerate business growth through digital technologies and use these tools to transform operations to make them more productive, increase overall product quality and ensure regulatory compliance. They also can use digital tools to transform the shop floor workforce into highly skilled knowledge workers.

Transforming manufacturing with digital tools can help companies become sustainable, socially responsible and profitable. Fundamentally, digital transformation is the idea digital tools and technologies can transform these aspects of manufacturing operations and provide a significant bottom-line benefit to the business.

Smart digital transformation solutions

Manufacturers now have access to myriad digital tools and technologies that support digital transformation efforts. These different technologies, devices and systems are being integrated, creating value far greater than the sum of their parts.

The industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applied the IoT to manufacturing, providing a communications backbone for everything in the plant. Artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), big data, digital twins, cloud and edge computing, manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP) and many other smart manufacturing solutions are all built on, or have access to, the IIoT foundation. For instance:

  • AI is now becoming a part of almost every aspect of manufacturing. It’s being built into controllers and becoming part of advanced analytics and machine learning (ML) solutions. AI is everywhere.

  • AR/VR also has very diverse uses in manufacturing, such as expert capture, machine troubleshooting, equipment maintenance, work instructions, changeover instructions, quality tests and a lot more.

  • Digital twins are being used to create digital duplicates of sophisticated equipment and processes on the shop floor and are used for optimization, troubleshooting, training, maintenance (especially condition-based maintenance), continuous improvement and more.

  • Cloud and edge computing are bringing simpler information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) architectures to bear while providing more flexibility and agility in these architectures.

  • The latest generation of MES and ERP systems impact the entire enterprise by serving as data repositories and supporting the digital tools and the digital transformation technologies.

Many other available technologies leverage digital transformation, such as additive manufacturing, collaborative robots, identification technologies, energy storage capabilities and mobility technologies.

The technologies needed for digital transformation are available today and they work very well. The challenge is deciding which digital transformation technologies to use. It’s also tempting to try and use all of them at the same time, which isn’t practical, either. Digital transformation is wonderful, but we still have a long way to go in using it wisely.

Too many digital-transformation pilot projects?

When digital transformation was first talked about several years ago, the best advice seemed to be to start with a pilot project. That always seems like good advice when talking about new technology. Prove the technology and benefits. Get people to adopt the new technology and use it successfully before expanding it beyond the pilot.

The problem is the whole manufacturing industry now seems to be in pilot mode. Everyone is piloting new technology. Many manufacturers are running multiple pilots with multiple technologies. They are then running more pilots behind them. It seems like the manufacturing industry has become nothing but ongoing pilot projects where everyone is waiting for the results of one pilot after another before yet another one is considered.

The idea of transformation is to transform. It is not an easy or straightforward process. A synonym for transformation is metamorphosis, which is a transformation but from an immature form to a mature one.

The problem is no one really wants to embrace transformation and make big changes. They are looking for small changes, driven by small pilots, in an incremental fashion to get them where they want to go. For most companies, that is not going to work. Transformation is what’s needed. A metamorphosis. A change from immature to mature.

Manufacturers use digital tools to transform the business and accelerate business growth while creating new ways of doing business to serve customers. Courtesy: Rockwell Automation

Manufacturers use digital tools to transform the business and accelerate business growth while creating new ways of doing business to serve customers. Courtesy: Rockwell Automation

Performing pilot projects without the transformation, or the metamorphosis, doesn’t really produce the business benefits. There often are some business benefits with pilot projects or they’d be shut down very quickly. However, there are no transformative benefits, which only come from a true metamorphosis, which can only be achieved from completely changing the way the business is run.

That is what’s lacking. That is the shortcoming that occurs when companies try to digitally transform but don’t maximize the technological capabilities to the fullest. There are a lot of successful pilot projects, but very few are truly transformative successes where digital tools created a true metamorphosis for the business and delivered significant business benefits.

Embrace change and digital transformation

The number one thing needed for the manufacturing industry to get out of pilot mode and embrace digital transformation, despite the probable mess and stress. It is time to go all in and digitally transform the manufacturing business to achieve a total metamorphosis from an immature state to a mature state.

Manufacturers can use digital tools to transform the business and accelerate business growth, while creating new ways of doing business to serve customers. They can increase productivity by eliminating processes, paperwork, non-value-added steps, redundant activities, waste, defects, breakdowns and delays. They can develop products existing customers don’t even know they need or use data to develop products for new customers they never would have considered before.

It’s also about transforming the shop floor workforce from manufacturing labor into highly skilled, highly trained knowledge workers who know the value of information and always have the right information at the right time. They also have the skills required to make the manufacturing plant function efficiently and keep it running to do what it needs to do, whenever needed.

Digital tools can transform manufacturing to be truly sustainable with zero emissions and no environmental impact. This leads to being a socially responsible and valued member of the local community and a valued citizen of the world while creating value for company customers, employees and shareholders.

Digital tools can mitigate company risks, ensuring personnel have the right processes in place. They also must understand the value of data and have the right digital technology in place to ensure data integrity.

In the end, digital transformation uses digital tools to transform manufacturing operations to increase overall product quality and to ensure regulatory compliance by eliminating paperwork, eliminating unneeded and redundant testing and inspections, ensuring immediate responses to failed tests or questionable results, and ensuring proper escalation processes and audit processes.

It’s time to digitally transform

Digital transformation is the idea that digital tools and technologies can transform manufacturing operations, and this transformation can provide a significant bottom-line benefit to the business.

Digital transformation can be messy and stressful, and even expensive and time consuming. But it is worth it. The benefits of true digital transformation are significant. Digital transformation – a true metamorphosis – can change the manufacturing industry and deliver substantial business benefits for manufacturers.

It is time for manufacturers to get out of pilot mode and embrace digital transformation. It is time to set their sights on transforming manufacturing to achieve the business results only possible through a true digital transformation.

John Clemons is a solutions consultant, LifecycleIQ Services at Rockwell Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

KEYWORDS: digital transformation, artificial intelligence


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Author Bio: John Clemons ( is a solutions consultant, LifecycleIQ Services at Rockwell Automation. He has been working in the field of manufacturing IT for more than 30 years.