Lucy Pamment explains why digitalisation is as important for SMEs as it is for global firms

What does it take to become a trusted supplier to the aerospace industry today? Of course, a small-scale manufacturer, who delivers quality components On Time In Full (OTIF), will always be a preferred partner – but, as supply chains become more complex, their production processes are coming under scrutiny too.

Driven by demand from Tier One manufacturers, SMEs are now faced with swapping spreadsheets for digital systems that allow their customers to trace every part and raw material back to the source. The reasons for this are obvious: in a competitive and tightly-regulated industry, aerospace companies need guarantees of quality and legal compliance to reduce the risk of safety breaches and/or product recalls.

While digitalisation may not yet be mandatory for every supplier, we are getting to the point where major firms are starting to insist on it, or at least view those who have achieved it more favourably.

Let’s take one of our customers, a precision engineering specialist and supplier to BAE Systems, Airbus and Boeing, as an example. Using material requirements planning (MRP) software, this ambitious company can now automate tasks, such as purchasing, while creating clear audit trails. Crucially, it is also able to prove to its customers that it fully harnesses technology and no longer relies on error-prone manual processes.

Connected supply chains
Data-driven systems connect tasks in factories (and factories and warehouses to each other), simultaneously streamlining workflow and driving up quality standards. While networked smart factories were pioneered by Tier One manufacturers, elements of them can be seen further down the supply chain, even if their sites don’t look quite as futuristic.

We might think of it as connecting the shop floor to the top floor. Using real-time shop floor data capture, from labour and machine times, production managers can allocate resources in a more strategic way to improve ROI. Comparing the projected and actual time and costs associated with a task, for example, provides full visibility over every process, which helps to identify inefficiencies and increase productivity.

Digital technology is also key to helping manufacturers become more agile and competitive. As demand for Just in Time (JIT) delivery continues to grow, and margins get ever-tighter, they must be able to order precisely the right amount of materials needed for production, while limiting waste.

This is why many opt for a system capable of automating purchase orders with suppliers, managing works orders and aligning inventory with demand. The precision engineering specialist we work with, for instance, has gone from ordering materials over the phone to automating the process, saving time and reducing the chance of miscommunication.

The positive power of disruption
While some factory owners and managers see the opportunities that disruptive technologies offer, others are perhaps understandably more cautious. This is often down to perceived costs and concerns about staff training and downtime for implementation. Sometimes it’s simply because their established processes have always served them well in the past, so why change?

Taking the term ‘disruptive’ in the most down-to-earth sense, the last thing anyone wants is a new system that is out of sync with existing software, resulting in increased workloads and an extra layer of data that causes confusion and/or fails to drive positive action.

One solution is a hybrid model that sees operatives working in parallel with automation, integrating a proven ‘off-the-shelf’ solution with their existing software. It may be, for example, that production data is already available but needs to be presented in a way that can be easily-understood and acted on. The advantage of a solution like this is that it can be implemented quickly with little or no costly downtime.

Looking ahead
Manufacturing, like warehousing and related industries, is undergoing a period of change as a result of advances in cloud-based technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT). It also won’t be long before standardised methods of data exchange across the supply chain are mandatory.

This means all manufacturing businesses need to develop longer-term digital strategies, even if this only involves data backup and recovery services for the time being. Smaller firms, without established IT infrastructure, need to work closely with their technology partners to see whether a cloud-based or on-premise solution, or a mix of the two, meets their needs and capabilities.

Traceability and operational efficiency have always been key features of aerospace manufacturing due to the high levels of accuracy and compliance required. With digital processes already well-established in Tier One firms, it is only a matter of time before data exchange via the cloud becomes compulsory. v

Lucy Pamment is a supply chain technology specialist at Access Group. The Access Group is a leading provider of business software to mid-sized UK organisations. It helps more than 16,000 customers across commercial and not-for-profit sectors become more productive and efficient. Its innovative Access Workspace technology transforms the way business software is used, giving every employee the freedom to do more.