Industry 4.0

How companies can prepare for the Internet of Things
Peter Dixen
March 12, 2018
COLUMN | Markets & Trends

 Illustration of Internet of Things

The Internet of things, or IoT, represents a game-changing advancement in technology for window and door manufacturers. By incorporating digital connectivity on the production floor, manufacturers will have significant advantages in their market. These include insights to create better processes and new revenue opportunities, better worker productivity and safety, and predictive maintenance metrics to prevent unplanned downtime. 

How can fenestration companies prepare to unlock the future value of IoT? 

Create a digital strategy

To retrofit the workplace into a smart factory, companies need to perform an assessment of existing physical assets. They should also determine how much—or how little—investment is required to optimize the company for increased value.

Company leaders should ask how digital connectivity will create value and where, both for customers and for the business. Is 3-D printing more advantageous than sensor technology, for example, or are both necessities according to customer needs? Will insights gained from additional marketplace and factory data allow a company to innovate? Managers should evaluate how the networking of invoicing and shipping information will enable faster billing and collections, and improve cashflow.

The strategy should offer a clear vision about how to drive digital solutions across the entire company, while estimating the value of those new opportunities. Predictive maintenance derived from data, for example, not only reduces downtime, but allows for advanced planning around temporary production shortages. The ability to immediately report the status of or to modify an order is a service that customers will find exciting and advantageous. Will it enable a company to hold, or even slightly increase, pricing? Similarly, data analytics provide a company with the power to understand asset performance in real-time so it can optimize infrastructure and operations. 

The digital strategy will ultimately determine which assets will require IoT-enabled solutions, and the range of new services that can result from new investments or retrofitting existing systems. 

Create the right ecosystem

Once a company has established an IoT strategy, management should determine what resources are needed to turn the vision into an action plan. What building blocks are required to bring the digital strategy to life? For example, which part of an operation requires sensors or other networking technologies, such as handheld scanners or tablets with network connectivity? Which processes, departments and functions should be prioritized? And, will current business and production software be able to manage data and deliver the analytics needed to meet strategic goals?

No single technology provider can regulate an IoT ecosystem on its own. It requires partnerships between numerous and diverse providers along the value chain. Once company leaders determine what they want the ecosystem to look like, the next step of the IoT preparation will be to build or source components—processors, modules, operating systems, power supplies, databases and more—and ensure they have the industry-specific solutions that enable them to speak with each other. The goal for a smart factory is to collect, analyze and use both structured and unstructured data effectively to improve business.

Hire qualified talent

Management must also be able to identify and fill capability gaps within the company workforce. That starts with determining what new skills are required for the future—including mobile app developers, coders, online customer service representatives and others—and finding qualified talent with those skills, or retraining existing employees to succeed. Intuitive software programs and continuing education must be selected carefully.

Managers should involve human resources early on so they understand the new skillsets required on the work floor. They should understand the principles around IoT and why making the transition will ultimately benefit the new direction of the company. This way, they can recruit and develop people to get exactly the skills and passion needed to make the transition as seamless as possible.

Likewise, managers should identify existing workers who will best adapt to the new IoT model and establish a re-training program. And companies should require IoT training from the onset for new hires.

What comes next

Once a company has established the strategy, developed a new ecosystem to make it possible, and supported that networked system with a workforce specifically trained for the new process, it must shift its focus to implementation. This is not just a new process for managers, but also new for customers, employees and investors. To implement an IoT infrastructure to full profitability, company leaders need to take several steps to ensure it will succeed:

  • Set targets. Establish an ambitious set of metrics for operational efficiency, revenue and productivity so the company can show progress within the first year. 
  • Show customers. Create opportunities to show customers how sensor-driven networking technologies will create superior value for their products. This will give them the confidence that they are working with a partner who is also invested in their future.
  • Dig into the data. Find new ways the intelligence gleaned from data can help create opportunities that did not exist before. Once a company has the system running, managers should explore what they can do with it that they didn’t anticipate.
  • Advocate. Establish key people in the company as thought leaders to promote innovations in the industry. IoT is the future and a company that invests in it is ahead of the curve. Managers should use this as an opportunity to show customers and employees how they are achieving success. 

 Peter Dixen is the CEO of A+W Software, a software supplier in the global flat glass and fenestration industries.