Finding people with digital skills sets and making better use of increasingly large volumes of data as advanced technology expands on the shop floor are challenges that must be addressed today if manufacturing companies are going to make progress on their journey to the digital age.

This was one of the key takeaways from a Manufacturing Leadership Council tour and roundtable discussion last week at Merck & Co., Inc.’s Maurice R. Hilleman Center for Vaccine Manufacturing in Durham, NC.  Nearly 50 ML Council members gathered at the 928,000-square foot site to learn how Merck makes ProQuad, its vaccine for chicken pox, measles, and mumps; Zostravax, a vaccine for shingles; and Keytruda, a cancer-fighting drug.

In addition, ML Council members heard about Merck’s own digital journey, which involves projects in mobile technology, supply chain planning, collaborative robotics, performance dashboards, and even in the emerging blockchain area. One of them, called the Problem Solving System, won a Manufacturing Leadership Award in the category of Mobility in Manufacturing in June.

The Problem Solving System provides a standardized process to support root cause analysis for significant investigations of problems identified on Merck’s manufacturing shop floors. The system, which enables the capture of information, including photos, videos, and voice memos using an iPad, enables collaboration across Merck’s global subject matter expert network. By the end of 2016, the system had been deployed at 21 human health manufacturing sites and five global functional organizations in Merck. The company, with $39.8 billion in 2016 revenues, has 48 plant locations worldwide.

This is just one example of what Merck officials described during the tour as the increasing amount of technology being used on the plant floor and the need for people working on those floors to be comfortable with it. That’s a challenge that requires better tools, the Merck officials said, but also will require people with new digital skill sets and capabilities.

Not surprisingly, given the general shortage of qualified people in manufacturing today, Merck officials are expecting to have to deal with a shortage of people with digital skills in the future. A variety of strategies and tactics are being employed to deal with this issue, including continued education and diversity programs as well as membership in professional organizations. In addition, Merck has formed internal teams to enable knowledge transfer from senior workers to younger ones, as it confronts the fact that, like many manufacturing companies, a large portion of its workforce will be retiring in the next five to 10 years. Worldwide, Merck has 69,500 employees; the Durham facility has 791.

“Our biggest challenge is to retain the information and skills for the next generation,” said one Merck official. “And we have to think about digital skills as an ecosystem issue. We are not just thinking about it with current Merck employees in mind.”

During the tour, ML Council members visited several areas of the Durham facility, including a form filling facility, a quality operations lab, and an area where robots are used in bulk manufacturing. Along the way, Merck officials explained the company’s information technology/operational technology architecture, describing it as a three-tier system consisting of an ERP backbone, an MES layer, and a process and supervisory control layer on the shop floor. A global laboratory information management system, or LIMS, is used in the company’s lab environment as well.

These layers are integrated, and information from them pours into what Merck officials called its “data lake”, where trending analysis is performed. “We’re standardizing at the enterprise level but are more opportunistic at the site level,” a Merck official said. “IT and OT have a symbiotic relationship.”

But Merck officials openly acknowledged that they are still in the early stages of the Big Data analytics trend. “We don’t do a good job of using the data we currently have,” one Merck official said.

In that, Merck is certainly not alone in the manufacturing industry. As Merck, and others, attempt to climb the so-called analytics maturity curve, they will be doing so as data volumes grow, seemingly inexorably, in an increasingly networked and intelligent production environment. And as companies develop digital acumen, the opportunities for greater efficiency, speed, quality, customer satisfaction, and cost control are expected to multiply.

For Merck, all of this will have to be accomplished within the strict confines of a regulated business where quality can mean the difference between life and death. Today, Merck officials say it takes 15 years to identify a new vaccine, go through all of the necessary development, testing and clinical trials, and bring it to market. Of those 15 years, only one year is required to actually manufacture a product.

Can you imagine how many lives could be improved and how many could be saved if that cycle time could be reduced?