Cutting-edge manufacturing technologies are developing at an exponential pace, competition on the global scale is creating strong pressure on Québec companies, and the labour shortage is adding multiple challenges related to productivity. Is digital transformation becoming the solution? Where should you begin? What can you do to find your way? Who can help?

Understanding Digital Transformation

More holistic than advanced automation, digital transformation is a comprehensive process that involves several stages.  Before even thinking about robotizing a production line or automating a management process, it is essential to go back to the basics and identify explicit business objectives and strategic orientations to develop.  The decisions and technological choices made throughout the transformation process must refer to these objectives and direct and measurable results must be generated.

Once the objectives are clarified, you must determine the issues that compromise the achievement of these objectives.  Is it the labour shortage, productivity, strong competition or workers’ safety?  The technological choices will be all the more effective if they directly address the issues that hinder operations.

What if it were possible, in addition to improving a company’s technical and financial performance, to offer a better-quality service or product, to achieve environmental progress through better energy efficiency and optimum use of resources, or to have a real positive impact on the community and job creation? A sustainable digital transformation will allow manufacturing companies to achieve social responsibility objectives.

A Five-Level Partnership

In addition to identifying objectives and business strategies, it is essential to find a trusted partner offering optimum support throughout the transformation process. The needs are often multiple, the technological choices are constantly evolving and the investments required are enormous, so the collaboration of an external partner is an advantage to keep you from losing your way.  

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when initiating a digital transformation, but you don’t have to venture into this process alone.  Today there is wide array of resources that offer support throughout the transformation, including various financing programs.  Choosing a good partner with a 360° vision of the digital transformation will avoid many headaches.  How can you recognize this partner?

Aim at an approach involving the following five levels.

These levels present the evolution in the delivery of possible services in advanced automation and robotics projects.  They also illustrate the gradation in maturity of the digital transformation occurring within a manufacturing company.

Level 1: Emergency technical intervention

Regardless of the level of automation and robotization of a facility, emergency technical interventions will always be part of the picture.  These are interventions for the purpose of quickly restoring a site or equipment to functionality in order to return to normal operation without disruption.  Regardless of whether they are managed internally or with the assistance of a specialized firm, these emergencies say a lot about the rigour and robustness of the processes in force and can serve as a basis for identification of the needs for a digital transformation project. Are these emergencies symptomatic of issues in machine safety, worker training or deficiencies in servicing or maintenance? These questions all represent relevant paths for reflection to develop a well-targeted digital transformation strategy.

Level 2: Specific project

Specific projects generally are conducted in a context where part of the execution is awarded to a specialized firm, based on predefined criteria and objectives.  For example, this may be a contract for design or installation and implementation of new equipment.  From the project’s point of view, this way of proceeding may offer certain advantages, including the targeting of a specific vendor specializing in a precise service, thus reducing the costs of selecting the lowest bidder each time.  However, what will happen in such a project if, at each step, the new vendor calls the previous vendor’s work into question, going so far as to disclaim responsibility for performance? How can you ensure good integration of each step of the project? Are the anticipated savings dissipated when certain concepts or work are redone?  Once again, the answers to these questions depend on continuous support by a trusted partner.

Level 3: Support and integration

It appears clear, from the description given above of Levels 1 and 2 of the digital transformation, that support is an essential advantage for the success of a complex automation or robotics project and that it represents value added for the project.  But what are the tangible gains from such a approach?

A digital transformation project primarily serves to meet a need or solve a problem. Choosing a project is a laborious exercise in itself, which must be taken seriously to ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of the chosen solution, but the decisions don’t stop there. In advanced automation, the rapid evolution of knowledge and the diversity of technologies are dizzying, due to the plurality of functionalities they propose and the costs they generate. How can you ensure you make the right choices? What are the basic criteria to ensure the success of a digital transformation project?

First of all, it is imperative to return to the initial need, the reason for the project.  What problem does it concern? Is there a bottleneck to eliminate from the production process?  These questions must remain omnipresent throughout the transformation. The answers to these questions will determine the selection criteria for a targeted technological choice and will suggest the checkpoints to ensure good integration of the solution into the existing systems and processes.

Another benefit of adequate support is the achievement of an analysis of return on investment (ROI) realized on the project as a whole, and not only on the cost of specific equipment. This overview will allow selection of the best adapted technological solution and will avoid ending up with a product which, after a short time, no longer serves its original purpose, is poorly integrated into the rest of the operations and costs too much to operate or maintain.

The following table gives an overview of the decision-making process to guide the selection of the technological solution.  The identification of weighted criteria of the impacts of the technological option ensures a selection process that will achieve the business objectives and the strategic objectives, instead of solving a single isolated problem.

A Lean-Agile hybrid mode serving a technology project

The Agile project execution method is well known in the computer software development field.  This project management mode puts the focus on collaboration between the multidisciplinary technical teams and their clients. It calls for adaptive planning, scalable development, early delivery and continuous improvement to encourage flexible responses to change.

One of the keys to the success of a well-integrated technology project is to take advantage of this method by integrating it into the management process of an engineering project.  This hybrid mode offers very interesting benefits.  Among them, optimum integration of the project into the rest of the operations, the fast pace of progress and the predictability of the results are especially attractive.  Contrary to traditional project management, where the deliverable is provided at the very end of the project, without iteration along the way, the Lean-Agile hybrid mode allows progressive delivery of results and regular feedback on compliance with the objectives from all stakeholders. It thus ensures optimum integration of the final deliverable.

Benefits of the Lean-Agile hybrid mode:

/ Reduction of design time;
/ Flexibility of the design and proactivity in meeting the client’s needs;
/ Improvement of productivity, communication and coordination of the project;
/ Better quality and reduction of waste and reworks;
/ Ideal for advanced automation projects.

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Level 4: Technology business plan

When the issues concern the company as a whole, for example, deficient productivity, a labour shortage problem or a setback in relation to aggressive global competition, the digital transformation of a manufacturing company becomes an inevitable strategic choice.  To get off on the right foot, digital transformation must first be defined and developed by the deployment of a technology business plan.  This allows you, at the outset, to have a holistic vision of the different levels of technological intervention in the company, from the production floor to management of operational, organizational and financial performance indicators.  This is also how you can benefit fully from valorization of this data. 

This high-level plan, which is based on clear strategic aims and a detailed ROI analysis, includes the development and optimization of the architecture of the software and the automated systems, as well as the development of the physical infrastructure attached to it, including robotics. 


Depending on the technological choices made in the context of the business plan, it will also include the development of implementation strategies and the development of standards and procedures concerning robotics, automation and machine safety. 

Moreover, the technology plan is much more than the deployment of an advanced automation strategy.  In addition to the financial components of the technology business plan, it allows you to integrate the consideration of environmental and social aspects for prioritization of technological aspects, such as:

/ Energy efficiency
/ GHG reduction
/ Positive impact on the community

Level 5: Sustainable digital transformation

In 2021, a manufacturing company can no longer limit itself to deploying its corporate transformation by only considering the economic and productivity issues.  More than ever, the company must be aware of its impact on the environment and on a group of stakeholders, such as the communities affected directly or indirectly by its operations.  This is corporate social responsibility (CSR). 

CSR is the commitment made by a company under which it will manage the social, environmental and economic effects of its operations responsibly and in accordance with the public’s expectations.  This responsibility is part of corporate governance and normally concerns each aspect of the company, particularly operations, human resources, manufacturing, the supply chain, health and safety.  The companies thus establish a good reputation, attract positive attention, save due to operational efficiency, minimize their environmental footprint, attract the best talent, inspire innovation and, above all, generate a positive impact on society.

Digital transformation helps a company maximize its positive impact on the community and the planet.  This trend is accentuated in various spheres of the business world and gradually become a criterion for access to certain investment programs.

Therefore, in the implementation of the technology business plan, it becomes relevant to implement the systems required to ensure the reliability and quality of the data for the key performance indicators in CSR. The indicators then can be easily converted into international accountability standards and an advanced narrative can be produced for optimum societal reporting.

Beyond the major principles of CSR, international sustainable development standards, such as GRI and SDG, guide the parameters under which performance in sustainable development is evaluated.

In short, although the needs are unique to each company and the deployment of a digital strategy integrated with the business strategy represents a major challenge for manufacturing companies that initiate a digital transformation project, a structured approach and support by a trusted partner offer optimum conditions for the success of a sustainable digital transformation.