The future of manufacturing is iterative, collaborative and data-driven
“Digital transformation requires a jump on the technology side, but it requires a leap on the people side,” says Bill Gundrey, executive director for digital engineering and operations at Raytheon Missiles & Defense. Digital transformation is a team sport at Raytheon. It affects every function within our company, as also customers and suppliers. We had to change the way people think about data and technology.”
Changing the way we work
Globally, covid-19 played a major role in shifting collective attitudes toward technology, particularly in the ways people do business. Raytheon used it to accelerate the cultural side digital transformation. It changed the way that Raytheon’s internal teams interacted and communicated with customers, vendors, and government partners.
We learned a lot from the pandemic. Gundrey says that we proved we can work and collaborate virtually. “Digital transformation is about people. It’s about being mobile and able to use new tools to improve collaboration .”
As organizations move back to in-office work arrangements or hybrid work arrangements, businesses must use the lessons from the pandemic to permanently alter their attitudes towards technology. Leaders in business now have an unprecedented opportunity to embrace digital change and the business practices that enable it.
An iterative and interactive approach
Perhaps the biggest opportunity for cultural transformation is replacing the traditional waterfall approach to project management — a linear process that front-loads the project with detailed planning and meticulous documentation — with a more agile methodology, says Gundrey.
Agile is more iterative. Customers and end users are directly involved with the development cycle. Their feedback is incorporated into every iteration or sprint. This approach to project management increases success rates and creates a space for continuous improvement and innovation, even if project specifications change during development. Organizations that adopt agile methods become learning organizations. The team learns as much as it develops during each sprint. This will position you better for subsequent sprints.
The development process at Raytheon can take up to months before digital transformation is possible, according to Gundrey. The requirements-gathering process alone involved creating hundreds of pages of PowerPoint charts before the customer could even view a preliminary design.
Now customers can have a more agile approach to digital transformation and can see the relationship between requirements and view preliminary designs better. Customers can provide feedback on designs and models and request changes in real-time. This is before Raytheon engineers spend time and money building prototypes that aren’t right. No PowerPoints are required.
We don’t need to stop work to make sure there are enough formal checks, Gundrey states. “Instead, our team and our customers become incrementally smarter day by day because the process allows for a more continuous flow of iterations.”
Another key digital transformation practice is integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to automate, or at least streamline and simplify, product development. Raytheon uses model-based engineering to predict complex fluid and structural interactions in missile systems. This allows engineers to better understand how products will perform at hypersonic speeds. AI and ML can be used in any industry to make better design decisions and provide better products and experiences for customers.
Natural Language Processing Technology, a branch in AI that trains machines so they can understand human speech and writing, can improve everything, from customer support to product descriptions to e-commerce. AI and ML can also help to automate warehouse operations, data entry and processing, and streamline warehouse operations. Some banks used AI-powered robotic process automation in the early days of the pandemic to quickly respond to the large influx of Paycheck Protection Program application and file submissions to U.S. authorities. government. The central goal of many digital transformations, is to connect the data stored within the organization, making it easier for users to find, access, and leverage. A federated data model is a method of managing data that creates a central view of all data in an organization, even though it may be located in different locations. Data federation allows for easy access to the most current data. It allows diverse teams to collaborate during development, manufacturing, testing, and maintenance. At companies like Raytheon where safety and security are top priorities, data must be organized and firewalled so that only authorized personnel can access classified information. Raytheon’s modern data architecture has helped them navigate a global supply chain that continues facing challenges from the ongoing political strife and pandemic.
” We had data stored in multiple systems. Data was stored in our procurement system, as well as in our risk management software. Gundrey says that data was stored in each program’s master calendar. “Now, our supply chain team can pull all of these data together and use AI/ML to better predict material lead time and help us plan our program activities These transformative technologies and all-important information can all be linked via the “digital thread,” which is a communications architecture that runs throughout the manufacturing process. The digital thread combines disparate digital technologies into a single view by streaming and capturing data throughout the product’s lifecycle. The digital thread is still about people and processes. As Gundrey says, “I want folks to know that as we’re building out this digital thread, it’s all about the people and the work processes that come along with it.”
The benefits of digital transformation
For today’s companies, the benefits of digital transformation are extensive. Digital transformation can help companies reduce risk and connect and speed up product development cycles.
This could reduce the chance of disappointing an end user at a business level. The agile methodology helped teams identify potential problems early in the design process. These collaborative and iterative approaches allow teams to address complex design issues early, reducing the chance of costly rework later. Managers also have more insight into how the components will interact.
At a global level, reduced risk could help enterprises roll out new technology that helps combat everything from climate change to national security concerns. Raytheon is one example of a company that uses digital transformation to speed up its interactions with government partners. The goal is to reduce an acquisition, development, and production process that currently takes 10 years to an astonishing 18 months, helping the company’s partners get new capabilities into the field faster.
But digital transformation goes beyond digitizing and streamlining internal processes. It’s about improving the experience of those who use the technology and rely upon the processes to do their jobs. They have more time to do the things that machines can’t do. This includes finding out what keeps customers awake at night, developing innovative solutions to customer problems, and collaborating with external and internal teams to make better business decisions.
When we talk about digital transform, ultimately, we are investing in people,” Gundrey says. We’re taking the monotony from their jobs. We’re making it easier for them to put their brain power on the challenging analysis and the design, and the real problem solving we need people to focus on.”
This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.