Collaboration - fostering innovation on the factory floor

Digital transformation is impacting everything around us, but can it really change the manufacturing industry? Can collaborative software really help innovate working practices? We believe it can.

Collaborative software isn’t new, but has migrated from desktop PCs buried in back room offices to always-available mobile devices across the workspace.

Transparency Market Research expects the global enterprise collaboration service market to reach $56 billion by 2025.

These solutions are part communication, part analytics, part asset management, part schedules and more. They allow better face-to-face interactions - even between remote teams - can generate new insights and enable new working practices.

At best, collaborative software provides co-workers from across the business with deep insights and new tools to break down traditional silo-based workplace cultures.

It’s important to distinguish between social media collaboration and collaborative tools for business. Consumer tools lack the depth and power needed in professional environments, they tend to favour the sharing of trivial resources. In the workplace, the tools must be strictly business focused. They must traverse multiple tasks, as well as communication. They also act as knowledge management platforms capable of capturing transactional data, resources and assets.

This means that when you use these tools you don’t just discuss topics and share resources, but can also analyze previous project commitments, schedules, outcomes and more, providing up to the minute insight into the state of your business, projects, and team efficiencies.

When you make these tools available across traditional team boundaries you can erode silo-based workplace culture. Such collaboration means teams from product design to traditional tech support can all begin to share and find common ground, boosting innovation, understanding, and the sharing of skills.

Manufacturers embrace collaboration

That’s certainly the expectation among U.S. manufacturers, 85 percent of whom are increasing their investment in such technologies, according to Automation Alley.

Facilitating such a collaborative culture across your organization’s teams makes it far more likely you will detect market changes early, empowering you to more swiftly respond to business needs. How might this work? Your marketing department, for example, may pick up on a change in consumer expectation that your product design and manufacturing groups may otherwise have missed.

Beyond communication and effective internal collaboration, the Manufacturing Leadership Council believes the tools can boost company understanding of customer preferences and trends; improve knowledge management and product innovation; and (perhaps crucially) boost revenues through improved business efficiency.

Multinational Pirelli wanted better collaboration between its 22 different manufacturing locations, without wasting time, money, and management time on international travel. Its collaborative solution means staff can now speak face-to-face in real time across the company; share desktops and other content; and work collaboratively across time zones. The company’s trackside technicians use the software during motor racing events, where live HD video links allow  them to interact with remote experts during the race.

U.S. beer distributor, Del Papa Distributing uses an extensive collaboration solution to enable better customer relationships. Under the old system, when an agent secured a client order they had to return to the office to file the order before it was prepared for shipping; today they file the order while they are with their client and find the consignment ready to ship by the time they make it back.

It’s rocket science

Space X recently launched its Dragon V2 rocket. This triumph of engineering, was also a triumph of collaboration. The company used digital manufacturing processes to develop craft components. This assisted in the use of 3D visualizations and rapid collaboration between geographically distributed experts.

The Space X teams used these technologies to develop production techniques and check component quality in virtual worlds before prototype testing. Not only did this accelerate development, but it also dramatically cut the cost of manufacturing failed prototype components. This is a classic example to illustrate how collaborative software can boost manufacturing agility, making product development far more flexible. Fast prototyping and the ability to implement change swiftly in reaction to changing business need makes your business more resilient.

“The most important collaborative functions include the engineering and design processes, business process integration, real-time financial reporting and analytics, and fully connected manufacturing execution capabilities,” notes an Infor report.

The report explains the added utility of building in strong reporting and analysis functions that turn the data you have gathered through collaboration into actionable insights to improve business management and create future opportunity.

Collaborative tools optimize teamwork by combining human ingenuity and problem solving with powerful analytics and asset, schedule and project management. They enable insights to feed into group decision making that may never have been shared between different parts of your business. This combination empowers agile businesses to pivot swiftly in response to changing market needs.

These tools are also important components within the emerging “Industry 4.0”, providing layers of insight and communication designed to underpin increasingly automated factories.

Read our ebook about the Six essentials of a great employee collaboration experience  


Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.