Forrest Lin, the Deputy Director of Tianjin’s Municipal Industrial and Information Technology Commission, put it bluntly yesterday at the start of day two of the China International Manufacturing Forum (MIF2017).

“We are deeply aware that China is lagging behind other countries in industrialization,” he said.

Given the size of China’s industrial base, Lin’s statement could seem odd, but what he went on to talk about was the need for Chinese manufacturing companies to embrace the use of advanced technologies such as Big Data, the cloud, and artificial intelligence to accelerate automation in Chinese factories and plants.

“The new industrial revolution led by IT will produce important results,” he told conference attendees.

Lin’s remarks were a made-to-order set-up for three presentations given by ML Council members and an award winner and a panel discussion I moderated that followed.

[In the photo above are: (left to right) IBM’s Qin Deng, Pixelligent’s Vincent Jao, MLC’s David R. Brousell, and Nexteer’s Dennis Hoeg]

Dennis Hoeg, Vice President of Manufacturing, Manufacturing Engineering and Enterprise Systems at Nexteer Automotive, described his company’s digital transformation journey, including the use of analytics in its testing process. Qin Deng, Director, IBM Electronic Industry, gave a talk about the use of artificial intelligence to improve quality inspections in an LCD display manufacturing plant in China. And Vincent Jao, Director of Asia Sales for Pixelligent Technologies, which won the ML Council’s Manufacturer of the Year award this past June, discussed how his company’s PixClearProcess reflects the convergence of digital technology and nanomanufaturing.

Determined to reduce its lead times, Nexteer created what Hoeg described as a “professional organization” to implement digital technologies in manufacturing. One of the key goals of this group was to standardize plant documents, machine design, processes, and to connect product development and manufacturing engineering.

An important development in Nexteer’s digital transformation was the creation of an integrated traceability system that encompassed the company’s manufacturing execution system, its warehouse and inventory operations, quality, and maintenance operations. The traceability system, Hoeg said, provided a new level of manufacturing intelligence to Nexteer.

Hoeg told the story of how the use of analytics in the company’s product testing process – Nexteer makes vehicle driveline and steering systems – revealed the potential of this technology to management. The ability to monitor and analyze vibration data in a spindle, a $5 part used in the $400 systems Nexteer makes, showed that much time and cost could be saved if preventative action can be taken before the spindle fails.

Hoeg said that Nexteer has already benefitted in a number of ways from its digitization efforts. The company has indeed reduced its lead times, which was a key goal from the start; complete analysis of its process is now possible, enabling proactive solutions to problems; and continuous improvement can now occur faster and will be expanded globally.

“Think big, start small, fail fast, and scale quickly,” Hoeg advised conference attendees.

Pixelligent, a start-up company, makes high refractive index materials for solid state lighting, displays, and optical components. In his talk, Jao described the market as fragmented, but growing with considerable potential to improve materials used in a variety of applications.

The company says its metal oxide nanocrystal technology increases OLED display brightness by 50 to 200%, increases OLED lightning efficiency by more than 100%, and also can release up to 35% of trapped light in LEDs.

Although the scalability of products is a challenge currently, he said he expects nanotechnology to have further applications in the future. One of these future applications, he said, will be in medicine using what he called “gold nanoshells” and lasers to destroy cancerous tumors with heat.

IBM’s Qin Deng’s talk was entitled “Cognitive Visual Inspection”, and he presented a case study of how a major Chinese LCD panel manufacturer transformed its inspection process using machine learning-based analytical methods.

The use of the cognitive technology achieved a number of benefits, he said, including reducing reliance on human inspection, improving productivity through the reduction of inspection lead times, and improving product quality and customer satisfaction.

The system also produced some hard, bottom line returns. Deng said that the manufacturer was able to reduce its workforce by more than 100 people, reduce costs by $1.5 million annually, and increase net profits by $10 million annually. In addition, customer satisfaction increased as a result of fewer defects and shorter delivery lead times.

In the panel discussion that followed the presentations, Hoeg, Jao, and Deng discussed the maturity curve with advanced analytics that companies need to climb, how to convince leadership teams to trust the data they are getting from these systems, the problem of integrating disparate systems, and the new skills and job functions that the use of analytics will require.

The trust issue, in particular, can be difficult for companies that have leaders in place a long time and are used to basing their decisions on their experience, knowledge, and intuition. Hoeg related that the traceability project created confidence in analytics in Nexteer and Deng told the story of a family-owned business that, as a result of strong growth, had to confront the fact that it could no longer manage without modern systems.

The integration challenge, too, is daunting in many companies due to disparate legacy systems and the complexity of trying to tie together multiple layers of systems. Deng said that in all his years in the industry, he has never seen a company achieve full shop floor to top floor integration, but he advised companies to move ahead with analytics anyway.

“You don’t have to integrate before you act,” he said. “You can start small and use independent data.”

Later in the day on Friday I followed up my “3 Dimensions of Manufacturing 4.0” speech on Thursday with a specific talk on the technology dimension. I presented some of the highlights of the Council’s new survey on Transformative Technologies. A full analysis of the survey appears in this month’s Manufacturing Leadership Journal.

I had a pleasant surprise in the afternoon when I was asked by the MIF2017 organizers to say a few words at the closing ceremony of the conference. I did so by reiterating the Council’s core belief in manufacturing – that manufacturing is the fundamental driver of economic and social prosperity and that its growth will lead to a higher standard of living and a better future for all people.

The world is in a state of great change as digital economies emerge and create great disruption as well as opportunity, I said, and manufacturing is in the center of it all. No individual or company can undertake the journey to the digital future alone. We all need to learn from each other for the industry to progress.

I closed by saying that what we all need to do is build connections and relationships – not walls – and take the journey to a better future together.

Saturday morning we took the high speed train to Beijing for the next stop on our trip. The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Olympic site and many other adventures lie ahead.