Smart Machines & Factories
Why are some engineers still wary of digitalisation?
Published:  28 April, 2020

The benefits of digitalising the manufacturing process are plentiful and obvious for many engineers who are open to new ways of working. Andreas Velling, mechanical engineer and head of marketing at Fractory reports.

In a recent report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, author Stephen Ezell said ‘the digitalisation of manufacturing is changing how products are designed, fabricated, used, and serviced, just as it’s transforming the operations, processes, and energy footprint of factories and supply chains’.

It’s noted as a good thing, but not all engineers are happy to adopt the process for many valid and not so valid reasons.

The digitisation of manufacturing has, of course, been a hot topic for the last few years. The main focus of discussion has typically revolved around the potential to optimise in-house workflows. At the same time, a whole new industry has sprung up from this movement towards digitisation – that’s cloud manufacturing

The process empowers engineers to compare design and costs without purchasing software and allows for quick quoting using 3D models for quotes. This can equate to up to 20% of an engineer’s time – let’s say, around £10k per year. Then there’s the possibility of delegating to manufacturing partners, saving money and achieving shorter lead times by using expert fabricators. Plenty of engineers are embracing it.

But there are also engineers who’ve been slower or more reluctant to recognise the power of digitisation; they will stick with the manufacturers they always use, even if it does cost a lot more because this is a very trust-centric industry.

Others still are simply wary of the outcome so just stay clear digitisation and do things ‘in the way they’ve always done it’.

This is understandable to some extent; engineers are aware that there’s a shortage of skilled machine operators in the manufacturing industry, which can result in late orders - and clients who will never return.

The manufacturing industry itself must look at the shortage of skilled machine operators and experienced engineers. We have seen it for ourselves in the pre-vetting process of manufacturing partners. Many have returned below-par parts, so we have had to turn down their application to participate as a partner as we only have expert, reliable partners. However, those manufacturers who are accepted can see their machines running to full capacity.

Engineers also worry that there aren’t enough quality assurance engineers at a manufacturing plant who would review the products prior to delivery, resulting in lower standards.

Furthermore, they also recognise that some manufacturers have to care for their big clients first, so when setbacks occur in the production, the smaller or newer customers are the ones who are going to be affected the most.

All valid enough reasons for why some engineers remain wary of digitalisation.

This is an industry based on trust. If an engineer orders parts with a one-week lead time and their client is waiting, the parts need to do the job. Some engineers are simply used to the very personal way of dealing with their partners, which is regarded as the basis for trust.

Yet by giving it a try with small jobs, once proven, this trust can grow.

It is the job of an expert digitisation businesses to be willing to help out the customers using their know-how and talk more about the ways in which they can help them – only then will the barriers come down.

Finding the right fabricators is not always easy, especially as some manufacturing companies remain wary of the digitisation process. However, any reputable digitisation business would go through a process, including a thorough background research before establishing their availability for new jobs, capabilities and pricing ranges for different materials. If it is suitable, they would then proceed with test orders to check the quality. After they agree to follow certain standards regarding packaging and cutting quality, they will be ready to be onboard.

Essentially, it’s about not starting with large orders and difficult orders but building relationships and offering bigger jobs once trust has been established and quality proven.

The uptake of digital manufacturing comes down to two things - the nature of the person and company culture. Innovative and curious people come in from all sides. From DIY engineers to CEOs. The bulk of our revenue comes from engineering companies though, which shows they are adopting these modern, forward thinking practices.

However, we sometimes see that an engineer is using our service for his own projects and then wants to bring it to the company as well. But when a board member does not have the trust in a new solution, this idea does not reach far.

When it works well it can be brilliant for engineers. Getting instant quotes without waiting for emails or sending out drawings to many manufacturers at once saves them a lot of time. Also, many of them use the platform daily to make informed decisions on different designs. They also love the possibility of getting everything from one place. We have around 30 manufacturing partners in the UK which means that there's a lot of capabilities on offer and we can execute almost any job with a short delivery time.

From a manufacturers point of view, they like that they are able to pick and choose the jobs they do. Digitised platforms can send out a job to a handful of partners who are suitable for a certain job (for example, 15mm aluminium cutting is not for everybody). It's just a free source of work without any obligations. Also, the files they receive are properly formatted. Even if the customer only uploads 3D models, the platform automatically generates production drawings to go with the models. What’s more, they never have to talk directly to the end customer – a company like ours is the customer and having a certain point of contact makes life easier.

In the past decade, as innovation in the manufacturing sector has accelerated, productivity in the most advanced economies has stalled or slowed down. This is starting to change and the industry as a whole is beginning to grasp how to consolidate the capabilities of legacy technologies and data-driven processes to revive productivity and build a platform for innovation and growth in future. Digitalisation is part of what is likely to become the digital industrial revolution. And while it’s the specific, headline-grabbing innovations that stick in the mind, the productivity gains and modest process improvements are what really matter long term to the industry.

However, for the digitisation of engineering and manufacturing, we need to have the proper infrastructures in place - while being realistic in terms of what can be achieved and understanding the challenges that lie ahead in the short term.

If I could leave engineers with just one message it would be ‘don’t be afraid of the unknown’. You can test a new idea with very small and incremental steps if it has the potential to increase your company's efficiency. Many larger businesses have started out with small test orders for prototyping parts and these tests have the tendency to grow into great business relationships.

Fractory is a cloud-based sheet metal fabrication company. It has digitised the manufacturing process, allowing engineers to upload their CAD files, including 3D models, straight to a free to use platform for instant pricing – catering to both customers and manufacturers.