future view

Digitisation of the chain – sharing data quickly and securely

28 April 2016 • 4 min reading time

Matthijs Punter, a researcher at TNO, feels that sharing digital information across company boundaries is becoming increasingly important. “In more and more industries, the success of future business models will depend on an effective digitisation of the chain. The result? Systems will be better attuned to one another, which will cut costs. There will also be opportunities for productivity gains and new services.” Essential and interesting. But how do you tackle that? Seven questions for highly motivated researchers.

1 .Smart Industry, Industry 4.0, Digital Manufacturing, the Digital Factory - You hear this all the time. What does that actually involve?

“Smart Industry involves strengthening the industrial sector by making maximum use of the latest information and technological developments. This enables industry to produce higher quality, tailor-made products more efficiently and more flexibly. Smart Industry is changing the world, and companies must not be left behind. Increasing digitisation, specialisation, you name it. The digitisation of information flows is an essential part of this, as is linking individual companies in the chain. TNO sees Smart Industry as one of the key domains of chain integration. The other domains we are examining include smart cities, smart logistics and smart energy.”

2. Why digitise and link together?

“In the manufacturing sector, substantial costs are involved in transactions between businesses, such as processing orders, coordinating schedules, quality monitoring, and invoicing. These represent a great deal of time and money. Processing digital information more rapidly helps you cut costs, work smarter, and shorten the time to market. You see that, in the manufacturing sector, customers want faster delivery, greater responsibility for maintenance, and – increasingly – ‘tailor made’ products. In addition, techniques such as 3D printing and robotic production can help companies in the manufacturing sector to become more specialised in a given production step. All of this creates even more data flows. In addition, companies are increasingly making unique products. Error-free production is becoming an ever more important issue. If you manufacture a unique product, failure due to a manufacturing error is a bigger problem than in the case of mass production. In such cases, your IT systems really need to be on the ball.”

You see that, in the manufacturing sector, customers want faster delivery, greater responsibility for maintenance, and – increasingly – ‘tailor made’ products

3. What expertise does TNO bring to Smart Industry?

“TNO helps companies and sectors reach agreements on the requisite standards and IT systems. We also carry out research into new technology that will make secure and controlled data sharing much easier. If data is to be shared in a controlled and secure way, the systems of the various companies need to be interoperable and to use the same semantics when communicating with each other. For instance, if one of these systems ‘thinks’ in centimetres and the other in inches, then you need to introduce a translation step. Companies will also have to reach agreements about the basic set of specific data that must always be included in digital orders. In addition, you should thoroughly examine the arrangements that need to be made at sector level, and the freedoms needed for individual companies. Developing these types of data standards is part of TNO’s core expertise.”

4. Is this only applicable to the manufacturing sector?  

“No, our work in this area is not limited to the manufacturing sector. In the agricultural sector, we are examining the exchange of information on cattle, for example. We are helping the temporary agency work sector to standardise digital timesheets. In the port of Rotterdam, too, we are supporting the logistics of ships and containers. The underlying technology is the same and, to some extent, so are the issues. For instance, the timesheet reading system we created is now being used throughout the entire temporary agency work sector.

5. So it’s mainly about reaching mutual agreements?

“Yes, but that’s not all. We are seeing the introduction of new technology that accelerates the process of digitisation and cuts costs, while also making it possible to share data throughout the chain in a much more controlled way. This involves such things as semantic Web technology (which deals with the meaning of information) and new generation data analytics that can cope with ever increasing amounts of data. You are also seeing technologies like block chains, which make it possible to link up the parties in a chain without the need for a centralised system.”

We are seeing the introduction of new technology that accelerates the process of digitisation and cuts costs, while also making it possible to share data throughout the chain in a much more controlled way

6. On 26 April, Prime Minister Rutte opened The Smart Connected Supplier Network field lab at the Hanover Fair. What is its role?

“Companies are drawn to TNO because of our independent role. Based on this neutral role, we work towards open solutions that can be integrated into all manner of IT systems.  This is also what we are doing in this field lab, in the Brainport Industries high-tech supply chain. We are organising ‘pressure cookers’, in which suppliers and IT companies work together for a week. This helps us achieve rapid results. In a test environment, companies are digitally linked in the chain. This enables new developments to be fine tuned and tested. In this connection, we focus on the digital information flows associated with orders, drawings, invoices and schedules. We reach mutual agreements in making information more portable, to create a common language, as it were. We are initially restricting this field lab to the high-tech supply chain, but it is in the nature of these things that they often spread like wildfire. It could even spread beyond the boundaries of the manufacturing sector, to the metal sector, for example. In addition, we are collaborating on this issue with the German company Fraunhofer, so we can also roll out this standardisation on the international stage.”

7. Can companies join in?

“Of course they can. We want ‘open’ solutions. It is in everyone’s interest that third parties, too, will soon be able to use the agreements developed. Furthermore, we are constantly on the lookout for new digitisation cases in manufacturing and IT companies. For example, an IT company with plans to develop a smart App that will enable manufacturing SMEs to participate in such a chain. Or a manufacturing company that wants to exchange digital orders and invoices with its customers or suppliers.”

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