At this point, if you’ve heard of digital twins, it’s likely that you’ve also heard them discussed in relation to the NASA’s Apollo 13 mission. For those of you who haven’t, the modern conception of a digital twin owes a lot to the structures that NASA put in place in case of exactly the sort of malfunctions that almost doomed the astronauts aboard Apollo 13. To wit, once John Swigert communicated to NASA that the spacecraft was experiencing an issue (in this case, an oxygen tank explosion had caused a cascade of system malfunctions), engineers and planners on earth were able to replicate the problems using a full-scale, physical model of the entire craft. Using this live, physical simulation of the systems operating in space, they were able to identify the issue and communicate a plan for repairs to the crew.
In economics and game theory, writers have traditionally used the term “widgets” to refer to objects of variable characteristics in production and, to a certain extent, transport. A widget can be of any shape, size, or make, and can have any other characteristics that suit the question that’s being posed or the point that’s being made. Since the advent of personal computing, the other definition of widget (an application or interface) has in many circles become more widespread, supplanting the original meaning.
In no particular order, the top supply chain disruptions include climate and weather events, forecasting errors, new trade regulations, oil and freight price fluctuations, machine and fleet breakdowns, and poor IT and technology integration, among others. As you peruse the list above, you might notice each of these disruptions can be put into one of two categories: fast or slow. Things like machine breakdowns and catastrophic weather can happen in the blink of an eye, and supply chain managers have to be prepared to preserve value via a backup plan. But other issues, like poor forecasts or integration issues, compound slowly over time—sometimes so slowly that it can be hard to identify the root cause of whatever difficulty your company is experiencing.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever played a game of telephone. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the game starts with a number of players sitting in a circle; one player whispers a word or phrase to the person next to them. That player, in turn, whispers the word or phrase to the next adjacent player, until the word or phrase has cycled back to the original player, who tells everyone else what the original word or phrase was. Usually, players find that the phrase has morphed into something else entirely over a series of mis-hearings and miscommunications—which is the entire point of the game.
Plenty has been written on the perils and best practices that come with selecting the right technology for your business. Usually, businesses will be told to look at online reviews, to do their due-diligence on the provider to make sure that they deserve the trust that’s being placed in them, and to be conscious of what the typical pricing structures are within the relevant industry. This is all excellent advice, but it might not directly speak to the most important questions being considered by businesses. Why? Because while evaluating an IT solution is, in some ways, just like evaluating any other product, it’s also markedly different in others. Specifically, it requires businesses to think not just practically but conceptually, considering the long-term, transformative implications of a given piece of software.
If you sat down to compare the experience of taking a cross country road trip now vs. thirty years ago, what might come to mind? Probably, your first thought would be about how the rise of GPS systems (and, relatedly, smartphones) had made navigation much easier. Gone are the days when drivers need to purchase physical maps and chart their courses by hand. You might also think about the ways in which modern cars are better suited to this kind of journey, often featuring built-in GPS systems, Bluetooth hookups for playing music or receiving navigational instructions from your iPhone, and improved safety features like alerts if you're drifting out of your lane. All of this is undoubtedly true, but do all of these convenience-adding features also make traveling cheaper?
In a recent poll, PwC found that while 60% of respondents were “dabbling” with Industry 4.0 technology, only 3% had truly achieved a working Industry 4.0 paradigm. To some of you, this might come as a big surprise. After all, Industry 4.0 has been the subject of countless news stories, opinion pieces, blog posts, and whitepapers in the last several years—almost all of them pointing out its unprecedented potential for changing the face of manufacturing. Some readers, on the other hand, probably aren’t surprised by this statistic in the slightest. Why? Because they know how difficult it can be to find and implement the kinds of technology solutions that make Industry 4.0 possible. Businesses often have to wade through jargon to understand what’s on offer, and a solution, once selected, might require large-scale operational changes that can be difficult to implement. To help mitigate some of these challenges, here are a few questions to ask yourself as you evaluate Industry 4.0 technology solutions for your manufacturing outfit.
Imagine you’re packing up supplies for a backpacking trip across Tuscany. You’re limited by how much you can comfortably carry for many miles of walking, and you have to decide which items and in what quantities you’ll need in order to make it the entire length of the trail. You start with clothing and a first aid kit—but how much food do you bring? You want to pack light, and you think that you’ll reach the next town (where more food could potentially be acquired) within a day or two, but if you’re forced to slow down for some reason you don’t want to run out of things to eat. Bringing more food, however, means leaving behind one or two of the books you planned to read in your more leisurely moments.
For decades, production planners in non-clocked production environments have been trying to optimize their job shop scheduling processes, and for decades the problem has continued to elude them, owing in large part to the tremendous complexity of uncovering the most efficient route for each product to take through a non-linear production environment. Luckily, new advancements in supply chain technology are constantly presenting planners with new tools and tactics they can use for gaining the maximum possible value from their production workflows. In many ways, the most significant of these advancements come in the form of the new technologies that make up the Industry 4.0 revolution. But what, exactly, is it that makes Industry 4.0 and job shop scheduling a match made in heaven?
Pop quiz: when’s the last time, either in a personal or a professional capacity, that you made a purchase from a business that did not have a website? Sure, you may have wandered into a charming little brick and mortar store and made an impulse purchase, or maybe you did a bit of antiquing, but I’ll bet that for most major purchases in recent memory you would have been loath to place your trust in a business with no online presence. This is, of course, with good reason. A web presence allows you to read product reviews from other customers, gives you the resources to make more informed purchasing decisions, and lends legitimacy to their enterprise. Once you’ve experienced the added conveniences of a digital business, it’s unlikely you’ll be eager to go back to the old way of doing things.