How Design Thinking Enables Digital Transformation in Manufacturing 4.0

There is a revolution brewing in the industrial manufacturing sector, and it’s changing how companies proactively design systems, machines, equipment, and IoT (Internet of Things) devices to build products that customers rave about. This new era is commonly referred to as Industry 4.0 (or Manufacturing 4.0) and it is a key driver of digital transformation. With product failure rates across industries hovering around 40 percent, manufacturers must embrace principles such as design thinking to reduce product development cycles, prolong the life of products, and focus more intently on product quality and usability. 

Design thinking is the advanced process of problem solving that seeks to uncover and address customer needs on a deep human level. It involves understanding customer requirements, developing strong user empathy, and mastering ideation, experimentation and prototyping. A Forbes Insights survey reports that 39 percent of companies surveyed had adopted the key precepts of design thinking, and there was a direct connection to organizational growth.

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Manufacturing 4.0 and Design Thinking

Today’s manufacturing ecosystems are heavily data-driven, as they attempt to precisely measure data mechanics across systems to empower better connectivity, especially with Industrial IoT (IIoT). The Manufacturing Leadership Council reports that deploying advanced technologies such as persona-driven equipment efficiency models that optimize availability and performance help improve product quality. Design thinking helps unearth the technical viability and desirability of products in the context of solving business problems.

According to the council, major outcomes for Manufacturing 4.0 from design thinking and digital transformation include:

  • Interoperability: designing machinery and IoT devices necessary for manufacturing production (such as in a factory) to communicate and share information with each other. 
  • Real-time insights: ability to read the data immediately, analyze, and leverage a predictive response, such as for maintenance issues. 
  • Modularity and decentralization: designing systems with a modular approach that can adapt to changing environments and make unit-level decisions as needed. 
  • Virtualization: also known as a digital twin, creating a virtual copy of a smart factory or plant that simulates a real-world environment that can be tested for troubleshooting. 
  • Service orientation: digitizing and integrating manufacturing resources that are easier to service, such as cloud-based models. 

Key Steps for Improving Manufacturing 4.0 Efficiency

The design thinking methodology is especially useful in addressing complex product development problems that are unknown or ill-defined. It does this by digging into human or customer needs in depth and reframing the challenges with better ideation, brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and other functions. Professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University developed a four-step approach that focuses on how to observe and reframe a problem, then design and test a solution to improve the user experience. The steps are: 

1. Improve How to Observe Problems

We typically use a cognitive process of identifying problems, but we sometimes need to relinquish the typical cognitive narrative, make inferences based on limited information, and find patterns we can leverage. Don’t take things for granted, in other words. Pay attention and observe the process from beginning to end. 

2. Ask Unique Questions

Design thinkers look at a problem from multiple angles. The problem you’re trying to solve might not be the most obvious one, so it’s best to “reframe” your questions to find out the motivations behind why (not how) a person uses a product.  

3. Imagine and Brainstorm

Focus on quantity vs. quality by building on other people’s ideas, even unusual ones, while avoiding criticism at all costs. Taking criticism out of the equation makes it easier for the ideas to flow freely. 

4. Accept failure

Failing should be an expected part of the design thinking process. The faster you fail, the sooner you can learn from errors and improve. This is where experimenting (failing and learning over and over) can be accelerated as a way to find creative solutions over time.  

Benefits of Design Thinking in Product Development

Customers want products that are not only innovative but also aesthetic and simple. By researching and surfacing true customer needs and requirements, you can minimize the “noise” and complexity usually inherent in building complex products. Sometimes the answer is simpler that it might otherwise seem. Minimizing the noise means fewer features, lower R&D costs, easier maintenance, lower cost of goods, and faster time to market. Savings are then passed on to the customer in the form of lower prices and better usability. 

An interesting design thinking example comes from a project that the Kellogg team conducted with design company IDEO. Their health care client sold a diabetes management solution for individuals to control blood sugar and lose weight. However, when it came to motivating patients, those stated objectives were not successful in getting them to make healthy lifestyle changes. 

Instead, design thinking models helped them reframe the objectives and activate motivational goals such as walking five miles a day or going dancing. With this new frame in mind, the company developed a customizable mobile app that helped those dealing with diabetes to solve a different challenge of how to live a better life. 

Enroll for the Design Thinking Program and be able to clearly define market fit and growth of your product and business!

Look at Problems Differently in Manufacturing 4.0

Teams that embrace the tenets of design thinking learn to better understand and define customer requirements. From there they can focus on ideation, brainstorming, and prototyping products that meet customer needs and, importantly, motivations. Design thinkers look at manufacturing and development problems through a different lens, and that creativity is what is driving the new Manufacturing 4.0 era. 

About the Author

Stuart RauchStuart Rauch

Stuart Rauch is a 25-year product marketing veteran and president of ContentBox Marketing Inc. He has run marketing organizations at several enterprise software companies, including NetSuite, Oracle, PeopleSoft, EVault and Secure Computing. Stuart is a specialist in content development and brings a unique blend of creativity, linguistic acumen and product knowledge to his clients in the technology space.

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