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M4.0: Mastering the Fundamentals is Key

Before investing in advanced technologies to move up the Manufacturing 4.0 curve, make sure you master the fundamentals of your operation. By Roger Thomas

Dal-Tile manufactures ceramic tiles. And after seeing first-hand what goes into this, at the recent Manufacturing Leadership Council plant tour at Dal-Tile’s Dickson, TN, plant (, this is no small feat.
All under one roof, Dal-Tile takes soil from the earth, mixes different recipes and colors, and mass-produces 500+ active SKUs of artisan quality with less than 1% of scrap. Their plant floor has embraced many of the process efficiencies and physical automation ascribed through Manufacturing 4.0 (M4.0) with great success. And it is with these advances in process and automation that Dal-Tile has laid the stepping stones for a M4.0 optimization roadmap.

The Folly of Short Cuts 

There are no short cuts to innovation and optimization. Those who walked the Dal-Tile plant floor saw a masterclass operation in ceramic tile. Not only did they have the visible process and automation steps streamlined, but they also were collecting machine readings from their equipment.
With growing buzz around AI and M4.0, the most common request I hear from manufacturing executives is essentially where to find the short cuts. Where are the quick fixes that will leap-frog their operations into the world of digital natives?
The truth is that there is no substitute for mastering the fundamentals of your operation. The conversations echo back to my high school chemistry teacher always preaching to students with their fancy HP Scientific calculators, “Your calculator’s intelligence is limited by that of the operator.”
Leveraging advanced techniques for moving up the M4.0 curve will open a world of insights and opportunities. However, those techniques primarily favor the Dal-Tiles of the world who have a handle on their operational fundamentals.

Start with a Business Problem 

This is where the advice of one Council member from an automotive company resonated with MLC members during a panel discussion after the tour. The member recommended finding a focus that could be a win for the business and help build momentum within the company. Three key points inherent to this approach are:

  1. It’s better to have one successful initiative than multiple failed initiatives.
  2. A single initiative is easier to pivot in different directions when needed.
  3. Creating momentum is critical for creating scale.

For Dal-Tile, the roundtable conversation perfectly framed three different M4.0 opportunities:

  • Maintenance Cost Spend Reduction:Exploring the idea of driving down costs for maintenance and replacement parts;
  • OEE and KTE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness and Kiln Throughput Efficiency): What gets measured gets improved;
  • Managing Complexity: Controlling forecast variability and error in dynamic consumer markets.

These three topics provide a perfect spectrum of M4.0 opportunities to further optimize your manufacturing floor. Data and analytics will stand as a critical success factor in each, so before exploring the use cases we need to think through some first principles.

Assessing ‘Use Case Readiness’ 

Reducing the M4.0 opportunity shortlist down to three is often a feat itself.How do you then take numerous and useful ideas down to that one business problem with a level of transparency that won’t alienate certain stakeholders?
The method I have witnessed, and used, with greatest success is conducting a Business Value Workshop. There are three critical steps to ultimately identifying core use cases:
1. Start by mapping the key executive priorities to tangible pain points.
Executive alignment will be critical for funding and scaling any initiative.
2. Quantify in rough order of magnitude the value you will be able to report back to the business. If the results are invisible, then so will be the impact. For example:
● Will standing up new automation free up a resource who could then focus on other support activities?
● How might refreshing not five macro, but 45 micro, market-level demand forecasts improve regional warehouse stocking decisions before 3PL (third-party logistics) contracts are renewed for the year?
3. Assess your ability to execute the initiative against the following criteria:
● Do you have data readily available to leverage? Spending six months on data clean-up may be warranted for certain initiatives but won’t make a great candidate for kindling momentum. And if you have data, is it accessible, translatable, and current?
● Traps to avoid: one engine manufacturing customer told me it’s easier to go create new data on their test stands in their plant instead of spending time looking for larger and diverse quantities of prior test results.
● How strong is the commitment from your executive sponsors? Would it make their top five for problems tied to next quarter’s board meeting agenda?
● Are you in a position to operationalize the results? Do you have the authority, the tools, and the change management levers in place? If not, how will you prove anything?



An analytics platform can return exponential value to the business based on the scale and breath of
connected data points.

Thinking Two Shots Ahead 

There is one more crucial step. When selling the vision of M4.0 benefits to executives, there’s a parallel to how golf pros think: they focus on the pin and not the immediate pending shot from the tee. Let me explain.
My golf game is horrible. Rather than counting strokes, a good day on the fairway is better measured by how many sleeves of golf balls I go through. When I drive from the tees, I have a defensive mentality and just pray to keep the ball on the fairway.
This is not how the pros play. The pros have a mental model of the entire course. The pros are not just keeping it on the fairway; rather, they are lining up their next two shots. There is nothing defensive about their mindset. The pros are always thinking about the pin.
Manufacturing leaders need to draw the parallel with their M4.0 strategy. Your company cannot compete for industry leadership with a defensive mentality. You must establish a vision for future operations and then take a strategic yet deliberate approach in your M4.0 initiatives.
This begets the popular saying, “Think big, start small.”

Setting up the Next Shot

The concept of an analytics platform comes from understanding the interconnected nature of business and markets. There is nothing turn-key about connecting how different market demands, supplier issues, and quality concerns will intermix for an impact to your bottom line. But by centralizing the analytics in a common platform, you have an opportunity to connect those dots.
Metcalf’s Law states the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. An analytics platform follows a similar power curve for returning exponential value to the business based on the scale and breadth of connected data points. This concept is fundamental to how digital natives have fostered a competitive advantage against their industry incumbents.
In setting up your next shot, you need to ensure it is more than a one-off data science experiment. Hitting the flag is akin to putting the analytical exercise into production. When done with an analytics platform approach, you will be setting a foundation on which you can quickly scale future initiatives.

Acknowledge the Uncertainty 

We often reference case studies in these conversations. Here is how that conversation goes,
● “Yes, this has been done before.”
● “Yes, the opportunities are great.”
● “No, there is no standard cookie-cutter playbook.”
No two paths are the same and everyone starts from a different trailhead. The key is to focus on a business problem and then think about scale in the execution.
The analytics platform is a key enabler for scaling insights across the enterprise. Beyond that, there will never be a substitute for taking the Dal-Tile approach of knowing your operations, identifying the right business problems to exploit, and leveraging your best people to execute with excellence.   M

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