With the right digitalisation tools, SMEs can modernise their manufacturing processes and capture their competitive advantage without expending too much on resources and manpower.
I4.0 technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) systems, sensors, and predictive artificial intelligence (AI) can help by improving traceability, monitoring, and control of food quality, as well as reducing loss and waste. Not only does this help businesses get a clear view of their operations, efficiencies, and bottlenecks, but it can also be information passed on to consumers as they demand transparency with their food products. Businesses that can take advantage of these are better poised to gain market share and improve market reach.
The lesson is clear for SMEs: due to their limited funds and resources, SMEs must learn to be strategic in their approach to digital transformation and desired productivity gains. With the appropriate digitalisation framework, SMEs can reap the benefits of I4.0 technologies right from the preparation stage.
In one instance, an SME was able to increase production line capacity from five structures per week to six—a 20% increase—simply by diagramming the production line value chain, identifying major bottlenecks, and executing lean interventions in preparation for implementing I4.0.
In an ideal scenario, the factory floor could be designed such that humans and machines can work side-by-side, with the strengths of each complementing the other. Machines, like robots and cobots, will take on manual, repetitive, and potentially dangerous tasks, while humans will handle complex tasks, react creatively to unforeseen events, or take on more strategic roles. This would open up new, high-level jobs for humans and promote opportunities for upskilling.
Naturally, I4.0 adoption won’t happen overnight. It will require significant planning and investment into tools, business models, and human capital (i.e., tech-savvy personnel and specialists) to navigate the changes. Perhaps the most significant barrier to adoption is the initial cost, time, and resource investment necessary to get the I4.0 ball rolling.
A 2021 study found four main barriers to I4.0 adoption: technical barriers (e.g., lack of ICT infrastructures and skilled workers); organisational barriers (e.g., lack of financial resources); technological barriers (e.g., lack of access to advanced technologies); and legal barriers (e.g., privacy concerns, lack of government support).
However, the study also found that while SMEs—particularly those in developing countries—face more barriers, they also perceive more opportunities related to I4.0, particularly in operations management.
As the world continues to evolve, and businesses gradually adopt I4.0 technologies,SMEs that do not pursue their competitive advantage stand to lose.