Kohler Brings Industry 4.0 Digital Transformation Directly to the Factory Floor


Imbuing the factory floor with Silicon Valley’s fail-fast-to-win ethos is central to Peggy Gulick’s mission as director of Digital Transformation Operations and Smart Factory at Kohler Co. I had a thought-provoking conversation with Gulick at the recent SAP Sapphire Orlando event, where she brushed aside the market speak to share a strategic game plan for the next generation of manufacturing with breathtaking simplicity.

“Digital transformation is just the newest term we’re using to describe the next stage of continuous improvement, bringing connected data from a really cool toolkit of Industry 4.0 innovations directly to people on the factory floor, helping them solve problems easily,” she said. “The people in the plant understand where the biggest problems are and where the biggest value comes from. It’s no different than the problem-solving we’ve always done. What are you waiting for? You have to start today; find your problems and solve them.”

Best known for its plumbing products, Kohler operates over 50 manufacturing plants worldwide and is a longtime SAP customer.

Intelligent, Connected Data Delivers Business Agility

When Gulick joined Kohler last year, she identified culture, infrastructure, and a strong foundational enterprise resource planning (ERP) system as three critical ingredients to digital transformation. At the same time, fast-changing customer demands and interconnected geopolitical events have shifted how companies do business. As ecosystems expand, security threats mount, workforce shortages continue, and industry boundaries blur, connected personalized data has become the common denominator for digital transformation.

“This is a fun job because we’re going into plants and augmenting humans, hyperconnecting them with data that allows them to continuously improve. Our goal is to help every one of our valued associates work smarter and not harder,” she said. “There is not a perfect time to digitally transform. Consumerism has changed, with even greater expectations for customization and expediency. Manufacturers require intelligent, connected data to drive the automation for performance at that level, or they just won’t make it.”

Gulick rattled off a slew of business results possible from intelligently connected data. Employees on the factory floor can ramp up faster, getting the personalized training they need at the right moment. This helps companies increase productivity and morale while meeting quality and safety standards. Machine learning algorithms can perform mundane, repetitive tasks with greater ease and accuracy, freeing up people for more strategic tasks, like new careers managing robots. Predictive maintenance from Internet of Things (IoT)-based sensors that monitor equipment helps prevent unexpected production line stoppages. Gulick said that one of Kohler’s transformative plants in Alabama achieved significant realized cost savings because they were alerted to replace a failing part before it broke down.

“It’s the bidirectional information that really boosts business agility,” she said. “You’re sending the information from tools and equipment to people when they need it, and they’re able to take the right action or escalate the problem seamlessly.”

Practical Digital Innovation from the Factory Floor

Unlike past eras of innovation, digital transformation these days is impressively practical while requiring upskilling of employees to create the greatest impact. People can use technology in new ways and, over time, drive repeatable value throughout the company. At Kohler, leaders continue to gauge what training is needed to allow an agnostic culture of associates, partnered with advanced technology like robots and cobots. The foundation, including architecture, infrastructure, and culture, are factors for success. Their watchword is standardization.

“We strive to be the employer of choice in addition to the brand of choice,” said Gulick. “Part of our road map is having a single source of data from our core SAP systems run in a standard way across all of our plants. Intelligent data will provide executives with a strategic view that tells them where to focus today and how to make smarter decisions for tomorrow. For associates across our plants who know what their problems are, we want to drive autonomy with consistent guard rails so they can innovate faster.”

Inducted into the Women in Manufacturing Hall of Fame last year, Gulick is looking ahead to her eventual obsolescence as she helps lead Kohler’s digital transformation.

“I’ve been doing disruptive thinking for almost a decade, and no matter what plant I walk into, I have realized that no person goes to work to do their job poorly,” she said. “Given the right tools, workers of all generations will get the job done, with quality and efficiency. Once we have connected intelligence, we can reimagine everything at our plants worldwide, including supply chain, operations, customer experience, and even profit and revenue streams. All companies need to begin transformation from where they were yesterday.”

What are you waiting for indeed!

Follow me @smgaler.
This also appeared on SAP BrandVoice on Forbes.