Written by Alison Sickelka

How to “Eat The Elephant” in Industry 4.0: Recapping the PLM Center Meeting

Two weeks ago, I attended the PLM Center Meeting at Purdue University’s Digital Enterprise Center with my colleagues Jim Zwica and Ashok Kosooru. This year’s theme focused on “Baselining Organizational Transformation for Industry 4.0,” including panel discussions, presentations, and engaging conversation about digital transformation. A running theme that came up time and time again was how daunting the task of digital transformation can be for an organization. Throughout the day, both presenters and attendees brought up the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” to reference how organizations should think about their digital transformation journey. A company’s digital maturity can frequently be categorized in people, processes, and technology tools. 


When thinking about digital transformation, it’s easy for our minds to jump quickly to technology. After all, Industry 4.0 is characterized by cyber-physical systems, machines, wireless connectivity, and a whole host of similar technologies. I like how Nathan Hartman, the event’s host, phrased it in his quote, “We’ve gone from physical and local to digital and distributed.”

The promises of new technology capabilities are vast, but there are also many challenges to consider. In fact, much of the event’s discussion surrounding technology focused on different pains:

  • Jim Strawn from Textron Aviation indicated that their technology implementations are moving so quickly, they rarely have time to measure a technology’s success and impact before moving on to the next thing.

  • David Ewing from Aras indicated that supply chains are usually behind in technology implementations, and can’t quickly absorb new methods. Strawn was quick to point out that this challenge ends up becoming engineering’s problem to fix.

  • Several people indicated and agreed with the challenge of disparate MES, ERP, PLM, and other similar technologies not operating together. These data silos require enormous time and cost resources for IT to connect different systems.

In their presentation, Don Haupt and Craig Brown started to address these problems by highlighting the importance of careful technology assessments that will resolve specific pains, rather than investing in technology for the sake of something “new.” Dr. Mohamed Abuali of IoTco agreed, indicating that manufacturers need to find the right plan to achieve high ROI. He highlighted the “elephant” metaphor through his approach: start small, then scale up.


The speed of technology changes ties in closely with a comment from an attendee: “Human evolution isn’t keeping up with tool evolution.” Although this comment referenced how difficult it is for people to change, I also found it tied in with Associate Professor at Auburn Greg Harris’s assessment of today’s workforce. A majority of workers fit into one of three categories: 

  1. Veteran workers who tend to rely on 2D drawings rather than 3D models

  2. Workers who grew up with computers in manufacturing, but need to write things on paper in addition to computer modeling.

  3. Incoming workers who rely solely on computer, 3D models and don’t rely on anything paper-based.

As a result of these three groups of people in manufacturing at the same time, many companies have to have both digital and manual systems of working. Manpower vice president Rebekah Kowolski supported these ideas in her presentation on digital skills. As many manufacturing companies know, there is a shortage of workers entering the market. More importantly, there is a shift of workers towards upskilled technicians, specialists, and analysts across different digital domains. So although today’s human evolution isn’t keeping up with tools, Rebekah’s top suggestion in her presentation addressed that very issue: “People’s ability to learn, evolve, and adapt is the most important thing to hire on.” If you hire people with high learnability and tackle your digital transformation iteratively, your team will be able to adapt and eat the elephant. 


One of my favorite moments in the conference was when Jim Strawn said in his panel discussion, “PLM is a process, not a tool,” and all the attendees started to applaud. Despite how easy it is to get lost in technology and the cultural hesitation to change, the right process will help technology adoption and connect the right people. 

Dr. Abuali mentioned that despite very expensive assets and tools, disconnected silos of data limit an organization’s ability to reach high ROI. In fact, he referred to this concept as a “data graveyard,” where companies gather an enormous amount of data—but then don’t have the processes in place to take actionable insights away. Thomas Hedburg of NIST showed that by adopting open standards and model-based methods in company process, the industry stood to save $100 billion annually. And that was a conservative estimate! 

Near the end of the day, an audience-wide discussion brought up an intriguing question: We’ve been hearing about people, process, and technology for so long but why do we become so enamoured with technology and less about people and process? In order to be successful in digital transformation initiatives, our industry has to focus on where the pain points lie—either with people, process, or technology—and tackle them explicitly and with purpose. Only then can we truly be successful in “eating the elephant.”

About Alison Sickelka

Alison Sickelka has worked with product teams for over a decade, in both business and product roles. Currently, Alison oversees product management at Vertex Software. Alison and her team work across the organization and with customers to ensure Vertex discovers and delivers valuable solutions to market that customers love.

Alison has been at the cross-section of business and technology throughout her career, and enjoys spending time understanding customer needs and then working with engineering and stakeholders to develop new solutions to solve those needs. Prior to joining Vertex, Alison served as senior product manager at SpotX where she worked with leadership to shape the product roadmap, identified new market opportunities, and drove projects from inception to launch.

Alison holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master's degree in media management from The New School.