Welcome to the self-driving factory

December 12, 2023

Imagine it’s 2025: You look back on the past half-decade with a complicated mix of relief, surprise and flat-out exhaustion. Is exhaustion the right word? Maybe not? Maybe exhilaration better describes what it was life when life totally changed, beginning in early 2020. But at first, you and everyone else were just heads-down focused on surviving 2020; what happened post-survival couldn’t have been predicted.

Your focus on surviving month-to-month slowly changed, a fact surprising in itself given all the doomsday rhetoric bandied about in the first half of 2020. You didn’t quite notice this change right away, but with each passing month, you and your team gained more confidence. Like a battle-hardened squadron, you eventually dusted off the crisis playbook to determine how best to systematically attack each new setback. In a small way, you even began to relish such challenges. Still, in the years following, you would share war stories with your colleagues about surviving, not thriving, in the crisis of ’20.

And it was a very a tough slog. Many of your competitors who managed to survive the first half of the crisis, didn’t have enough staying power to make it through the second half. Many ran out of capital. Others saw their markets evaporate. For competitors that did survive past 2020, sometimes it was only luck landing in their corner that got them through. But we all know that luck favors the prepared.

You were prepared. You made decisions early on which, in hindsight, were obviously the right ones. All these right decisions related in some way to expanding your organization’s digital presence, practices and strategies. Companies that embraced digital in intelligent and original ways didn’t just scrape by—they emerged stronger than they were before the crisis began.

In early 2020, everyone started web conferencing from the safety of their homes; this was an obvious choice, as most organizations already had such technology set up for various internal and external meetings. For certain professions and business verticals, having all or most teams working fully remotely using tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams or Zoom did not drastically change day-to-day activities.

Unfortunately, many companies, regardless of their particular business structure and needs, did not digitize their organizations beyond video conferencing. As a result, companies of all sizes, types and sectors simply could not survive.

The question about such failures, in retrospect, is this: Why stop at web conferencing? Or, for those in manufacturing, the question is: If you could create a virtual office that yielded results comparable to those of a physical office, why wouldn’t you also create a virtual version of your factory?

A great question—but a virtual factory alone wouldn’t have been enough to keep manufacturers afloat in a post-pandemic world. Many virtual offices succeeded because they were able to deliver the same or similar results as their physical originals had: meetings still went smoothly, teams brainstormed to good effect, and documents were filled out accurately and on time. Virtual office work wasn’t exactly the same—all but the most anti-social office staff really missed the downtime and the spontaneous work talks around the water cooler; but virtual office work ended up being significantly more cost-effective than in-person work. A few months into the crisis made it clear that this new way of working would completely change the nature of office work; for many, it meant heightened productivity and increased work-life balance.

But making the jump and digitizing your operations involved a leap of faith, didn’t it? You were up for the risk and the possible reward, but it took some effort to convince your teams that digitizing the plant was the next logical step. Knowing this crisis was probably your only chance to make significant changes at the operational level, you were bold. You made the big moves you knew were required to lay a solid foundation for growth over the next decade, and beyond.

The first step was taking stock of your assets: databases, ERPs, MES/MRP systems, accounting software, even spreadsheets. All these pieces needed to be corralled. If that didn’t happen during the crisis of ‘20, your company would be stuck managing a scattered mess of ever-growing digital assets indefinitely—which would bring decision-making to a standstill. In spite of varying levels of resistance and inertia, you made this happen.

Next came reporting. You tested a pilot providing better operations dashboards; your teams soon demanded more. They became accustomed to the ease with which they could access real-time results. Soon, KPIs were not enough; teams wanted to see leading indicators and detailed, in-depth analysis of what was going on. They wanted to build models predicting how and where organizational activities were trending.

There were limits, however, to this kind of analytical and predictive knowledge. You knew that despite how far it had come in the first 12 months of the pandemic, your company was still far from living up to its potential. So, you gambled, just a little: You pushed the executive team to sponsor a more ambitious project, one in which you started taking advantage of corporate data now properly recorded, collated, and stored in your systems.

You then demanded the system provide insight—and not just any insight. You looked to discover what parts of the plant were underperforming, the sources of such underperformance, and what you could change to fix these problems. You tackled these issues one by one until the plant was running as well in reality as it could in theory.

Then you upped your game again and started adding more data, more sensors, more external market information. For operations, you started integrating data from sales and integrating more data from finance into sales. Such thoughtful, ambitious, technical moves weren’t what employees saw, however. They saw the system getting smarter: Sales and operations no longer needed to track inventory levels daily; the system automatically re-ordered when inventory levels dropped to a pre-defined point. Soon thereafter, the system stopped requiring programming around drop-off point, having become able to figure such details out on its own. In direct correlation, sales reps needed to fill out less and less paperwork; time-consuming, low-reward processes they were never able to perform correctly or with enthusiasm started to disappear.

Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe how much has changed. For the most part, the plant is driving itself now. Virtually any role involving paperwork has been eliminated. Sales reps need only input orders for plant systems to seamlessly manage everything else—up to and including final customer delivery.

In 2025, plant managers still oversee operations, but they work with the self-driving system on equal footing, which provides advice on all operational processes. Maintenance teams not only work in harmony with the production schedule, but workers also take care of minor repairs on the plant floor as they can pull up digital step-by-step instructions at a moment’s notice. Finally, finance leaders, no longer hamstrung by tedious bookkeeping and scenario planning, now spend time investigating strategic options for growth.

The self-driving factory is already in production. 3AG had developed and was executing on a roadmap for this ideal before the pandemic began and it will be fully realized within five years. With some pieces already available and others in developments, 3AG is primed to support manufacturing companies aiming to more than merely survive the pandemic. The future of manufacturing is the self-driving factory—we can help you build yours faster.


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