Digitalisation – how can I get started?

Getting up and running with digital tools doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. There’s no need to have a vision of a new, revolutionary business model, however, there is considerable potential value in a commodity which all companies already possess: information.

Source: Swedish Match

The conditions for digitalisation vary considerably from business to business. The reality of small contract manufacturers in the countryside is somewhat different to automotive manufacturers operating globally. In cases where it is not possible to employ people on a full-time basis to establish a roadmap for digital work, how can small and mid-sized manufacturing companies begin the process of discovering their digital identity?

Digitalisation is a concept which means different things for different businesses. The real-estate industry works with virtual viewing, the Government is talking about collaboration at a national level, start-up companies are conquering the world and Silicon Valley is producing cloud solutions and AI assistants at a geometric rate. And at the heart of it all is digitalisation. The broad scope of the concept makes it difficult to know at which end of the digitalisation scale you should begin, while the journey itself seems unclear, as it’s difficult to identify an actual destination.

It is easy to become technology-orientated when it comes to digitalisation. What is the best hardware for AR, for instance, and what platform should I use for may digital twin? There are a large number of terms and abbreviations in this context which may lead to additional psychological barriers to overcome. However, it is important to remember that systems and hardware cannot make factories smarter or transform business models single-handedly. The business itself is and will remain the creator of value, with digitalisation providing the potential for greater momentum.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, digitalisation is used to support a process which already exists. This is in sharp contrast to a number of cases which are often highlighted in this context. Uber, AirBnB and Spotify are enterprises whose fundamental business ideas are based on digital technology, and do not have existing processes to take into account. It is important to point out the difference between these circumstances and those normally faced by Swedish manufacturers with established business models, equipment, processes and personnel.

The point is not that there is anything wrong with having lofty ambitions. The point is not to become paralysed by the belief that your ambitions should be anything other than what they are. The Lean philosophy has taught us to focus on value creation, and this is just as relevant when it comes to digitalisation. Instead of trying to find an application in which a pair of AR glasses could be used, consider the actual needs involved. Swedish industry is good at this, but the challenge of digitalisation is more about understanding the value which it can contribute. So let’s take a closer look at this area.

The value is in exchange of information

The notion of the smart factory is often mentioned when discussing Industry 4.0. In the smart factory, products, machinery and systems which communicate with each other ensure that production keeps ticking over, quality is assured and downtime kept to a minimum. In all cases, the components are dependent on the same thing in order to achieve results:


It is when the flow of information is automated that opportunities arise. The potential value lies in exchange of information, an assertion which rings true in most cases. When a product reaches a machine, the machine has to know what to do with it and how to proceed before manufacturing commences. When a bottle reaches the bottling station, the station needs to know what to fill it with, as well as the volume. When an order is completed, the systems involved can find out the details of the next order themselves. However, this is nothing new; the concept of AGV has been in use for over 50 years. The difference today is that the components required in order to secure exchange of information are smaller, faster and often wireless. This presents entirely new applications for a tried and tested concept.

Nowadays, it is assumed that this information is digital in order for the components to utilise it. The information required is most likely available in one form or another, that is, business systems, spreadsheets, databases, control systems and so on, as well as printed in files, quick reference guides or simply in people’s heads. This is where a new concept comes into the picture: digitising. Closely related to digitalisation, digitising is of a more straightforward nature. It involves converting analogue information, such as a form, into digital format. Despite being essential in order to pursue digitalisation, digitising contributes no value in itself. It is only when the digital information begins to be processed that possibilities arise.

There is considerable potential value in automated exchange of information between systems, components and people. Source: Per-Vilhelm Andersson, Swedish Match.

Back to Industry 4.0. The Internet of Things is acknowledged to be a cornerstone of communication, incorporating connected sensors and machines which wirelessly communicate with the cloud. This is often associated with large-scale investment in hardware and extensive reconstruction of equipment. Rather than getting caught up in the definition of the IoT and how it works, it may be better to look at what it actually contributes, that is, communication. In a broader perspective, the IoT simply enables the transmission of information, and in many cases there are several alternatives which serve the same function. The majority of PLC and DCS systems these days have some type of Ethernet based communication. Where there is an outlet for a network cable somewhere in the system, it is generally possible to access information. And when it comes to communication between machines, there are often compatible buses. With relatively limited expertise, it is easy to schedule the export of .CSV files from a range of systems which, with the help of macrons, can compile reports and data in spreadsheets. Nor does setting up an OPC server to enable communication with PLC systems require a great deal of resources.

However, this type of hack, with the exception of OPC servers, should not form the basis of a broader digitalisation strategy. On the other hand, it is a valuable and relatively inexpensive investment which helps the organisation to begin its journey towards a greater degree of digitalisation. The main thing is to begin to understand what types of processes and tasks which can and should be streamlined with the help of digital tools. A logical consequence of this process also involves charting data sources and examining the structure of data, for which it is important to have a good overview.


In summary, the above discussion can be broken down into three main points:

  • Identifying needs – which processes can benefit from automated transmission of information?
  • Digitising – ensure that information is digital and accessible. A manually updated spreadsheet is often sufficient in order to get up and running.
  • Creating exchange of information – use existing techniques and interfaces to ensure the right system/machine/person gets the right information at the right time.

In most cases, these measures can be carried out with relatively limited resources. In the longer term, this type of analysis accelerates the maturity of the organisation and gives a free reign to ambition, and when the time comes to take a greater step involving standardised solutions, the organisation is far better equipped to do so.


AGV – Automated Guided Vehicle

AI – Artificial Intelligence

AR – Augmented Reality

CSV – Comma Separated Value

DCS – Distributed Control System

IoT – Internet of Things

OPC – OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) for Process Control PLC – Programmable Logic Controller


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This article is categorised as Intermediate  |  Published 2017-12-12  |  Authored by Sandra Mattsson