PTC’s James (Jianjie) Zhang, VP of Market Development, discusses the importance of digitalisation for manufacturers and the future for digital factories
Joining PTC in 2018, James Zhang, VP of Market Development describes the organisation as a fast-paced and innovative company driven by its mission to help industrial companies to create value for themselves, their customers, and the world. At PTC, Zhang is responsible for the strategies and go-to-market of its smarter connected operations solutions. “This is where we help our customers to make the factory of the future a reality. So headquartered in Boston (US), we have been helping industrial companies over the world to better design, manufacture and serve their customers and their products,” says Zhang.
“If we look at industry in relation to new technology adoption, we are really seeing more and more companies adopting new technologies like the internet of things (IoT), augmented reality (AR), and analytics from proof of concept to a production deployment at larger enterprise scale. So this is a really important moment for the industry, and meanwhile, at PTC, everything we are doing with our portfolio, our solution strategy, our customer engagement approach, our go-to-market model, and how we collaborate with our ecosystem is to help our customers capture the value of this industrial digital transformation at enterprise scale.”
Contemplating the current landscape of the manufacturing industry, Zhang comments that there are “several things that really stand out. If you talk with manufacturing executives, there are really three things on the top of their radar. The first one is maximising the throughput while keeping the CapEx and OpEx as low as possible; this is about improving efficiency and operational productivity. That’s the first thing that is becoming really important as demand changes and disruptions rise in the supply chain. It has never been more important for manufacturers to maximise their throughput and efficiency.”
“The second thing we hear again and again from our customers is the agility, flexibility and resilience of their supply chain. Personalisation, customisation and consumer power are really making agility and flexibility across the whole supply chain and manufacturing operations a necessity. It is no longer an option. The third trend we are seeing a lot these days is sustainability. Again and again, we are not only hearing this from the bottom or middle; we are hearing the sustainability discussion at the boardroom level. There are not only regulation requirements today, but also there are more pressures from the investors and from customers directly.”
“One final thing we are seeing is the labour/skills gap. This is pretty common in the manufacturing industry across the world whether you are looking at well-developed or developing areas.”
The Time for Digitalisation is Now
“Before COVID-19 digital transformation was thought of as ‘really cool, with a lot of interesting technology, but not that urgent’. But since COVID, there has been a clear trend that companies are accelerating their digital transformation. They are moving from the pilot stages to actual production deployment. I think this is because it is clear that those who adopted digital transformation during COVID had much stronger resilience than the ones who didn’t. I believe this is a big factor why this trend is accelerating now,” explains Zhang.
“In general, I would say there are roughly 30% of manufacturing companies already on the journey to adopting digital capability at enterprise scale. For most of these companies, a digital transformation strategy is a central programme at the corporate level, driving the adoption of digital capabilities across the entire production network. Then there are roughly 40% of companies started their journey. They have done the pilots, the studies, and now because of COVID and the pressures on their operations, they are accelerating their transition from pilot to enterprise adoption.”
Taking the overall operations of a manufacturing organisation into account, Zhang highlights that there are four things that are most important in the factory: “machines, people, processes, and placings (what is where and when).”
“So what we are seeing here is that digital transformation is really helping manufacturers optimise these four elements, making machines perform better and making people do their jobs better with a much smarter approach. Meanwhile, it also helps to improve the process efficiency of their entire operations.”
“We call it ‘double-digit impact’ in operational metrics, for example, the quality, the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), and labour productivity. This improvement in operational metrics really helps companies to drive the bottom line and also help them on the balance sheet as well. For example, some companies we have worked with have improved their OEE between 5% and 20%.
“So that percentage really, if you translate that into throughput and capacity, for those where the demand is much higher than their capacities, they can quickly ramp up their productions and meet customer demands. For those who are under pressure to reduce the conversational cost, this double-digit improvement on OEE for capacity can help them to do that as well. So again, this is really where digital transformation can impact all aspects of operations to improve machine performance, people performance, and process efficiency when and where there is most impact, which eventually translates into double-digit impact and into financial benefits.”
Making Manufacturing Smarter
Discussing the ways in which technology is helping to make manufacturing smarter, Zhang says that “the internet of things (IoT), augmented reality (AR), digital platforms, and analytics are all enablers. PTC is an industrial leader of IoT and AR. So we have the privilege of working with hundreds of companies and factories all over the world to help them to transform their operations. There are hundreds of use cases, but there are a handful that are really powerful.
“The first one is, I would say, a must-have for all digital transformation initiatives in factories, which we call digital performance management. Not only is this the most popular, most powerful, and most valuable use case by itself, but is also a foundation for a company’s digital transformation journey. Digital performance management allows the whole organisation from top to bottom access real-time actionable insights to identify, prioritise, and analyse problems and implement the countermeasures, measuring the results, standardising and rolling out the closed-loop problem solving across production networks. The second is the combination of AR and IoT for labour productivity. In doing so, organisations can improve their ability to train or upskill their employees and better perform their daily job from the assembly, quality inspection to maintenance. The third is predictive maintenance and condition-based maintenance that really helps to improve machine availability and improve the return on assets. ”
The Evolution of Manufacturing Technology at PTC
In just three short years, Zhang has seen the manufacturing industry and PTC rapidly evolve. “In my time at PTC, technology has moved from a platform only to solutions plus platform.”
Explaining what he means by this, Zhang uses LEGO as an analogy. “If you think about one box of LEGO, there are maybe 300 bricks, and you can assemble them into whatever you want to build - a car or a plane. A platform approach was similar to this. It is so powerful that it has all the bricks there to achieve the desired outcome. However, today we know what our most impactful use cases are - digital performance management, labour productivity, predictive maintenance, and condition-based maintenance. So at PTC, we have been building ready to deploy solutions for these high-value use cases. So, if you think about it this way, coming back to LEGO, you now not only have a box of bricks, you have a motor, you have pre-built components that allow you to build more complex models at a much faster speed and more importantly because they are all proven with double-digit impact, you can now get these transformational impact across your own production networks.”
“The second big evolution is the ‘SaaSification’ of cloud technology. Circling back to organisations moving from the pilot stage to enterprise-scale, three things matter: the impact, speed, and scale. Cloud for sure is a great enabler of digital transformation scale and speed. It brings much better customer experience, much lower Total cost of ownership and much more scalable architecture”
Factories of the Future
Looking to the future of manufacturing factories, Zhang reflects that “if you look at a factory of the future, a key thing here is how you can bring this digital capability through the whole production network so that this digital capability can be leveraged by not only 10 people, but by 1000s workers all over the world. That's really where you will see the transformation.”
“In that concept, digital platforms, IoT, and AR not only bring speed and scale but will become the digital foundations for the factory of the future. Digital platforms will make factories more robust and more agile. They will also enable factories to do things that are simply not possible with analogue systems, such as predictive maintenance and predictive quality. Eventually, digital platforms will become the foundation for companies to scale and upskill different capabilities across the production network, enabling capabilities that were not possible before.”